The Root of the Problem: Threat and Neglect

When couples argue, it is all to common for things to get blown out of proportion – for hurtful remarks to be made, old grudges brought up… Why is it so easy to get off topic, to argue about anything and everything other than the issue at hand?

It has to do, in part, with the baggage that we all carry. There are little things that bother us that we may never say anything about. Maybe it’s a chore we do thanklessly, or a spouse’s personality quirk that is starting to grind on our nerves – these things can pile up internally. An argument is often used to open those floodgates, and let all of that negativity come rushing out. This makes it easy to divert the course of the conversation away from the problem that started it, even if it happens unintentionally.

In fact, doing exactly that is a common defense mechanism. When put on the spot for something they’ve done wrong, many people counterattack, bringing up past mistakes made by the other person, dredging up hurtful things to say to turn the focus of the argument away from their own flaws.

When this happens, the argument usually escalates until both people are angry, have their feelings hurt, and are so caught up in the emotionally intense situation that any hope for actually resolving a problem goes right out the window. So much energy is spent attacking and defending, that the root of the problems are never really discussed, and the same issues come back up the next time there is an argument.

Asian couple fight at home
It is easy to lose track of the problem that initially caused the fight.

This problem has a couple of potential solutions. The most basic, of course, is to try to establish some ground rules for your disagreements – keep things on topic, and when other, loosely related issues arise, table them for discussion in the future. As a preventative measure, talk about the little things when they come up. Don’t just hold on to it for the next fight! If something upsets you, say something – and the two of you can talk about it rationally.

It may also help to understand some of the basic psychology that drives arguments between men and women. While this is not the case every time, some of our age-old programming still has a major effect on the way we deal with one another in the face of conflict.

As a basic need, men want to provide and protect. They want to know that they are valued, needed, and more importantly, that their efforts are adequate – in everything from the bedroom to the money they earn, from their abilities as a father to their “coolness” among their peers. Men typically bristle and act defensively when such adequacy is challenged, even unintentionally.

In equally “ancient” psychological terms, women feel a need for inclusion and understanding. Tension occurs when these needs are threatened in a relationship – when a woman feels isolated or misunderstood by her husband. There is a pretty obvious parallel between these basic psychological needs and the common complaints of husbands “not listening” and “not opening up.”

Understanding these underlying needs may help couples see the source of tensions they are experiencing, as well as find ways to avoid pushing each other’s psychological buttons. Men: don’t shut your wife out. Women: don’t threaten your husband’s adequacy.

These same principles can transcend gender boundaries, too. The ideas of perceived threat and perceived neglect fuel nearly every fight between a couple. It all stems from doing something you shouldn’t (threat) or not doing something you should (neglect).

When couples can take a moment to realize the complex and hardwired psychology beneath their surface disagreements, it will help them to understand the nature of their reactions to one another, to clearly see when they are using defense mechanisms, to take note of what kinds of comments or behaviors activate psychological triggers.

We cannot change the way our brains work, but if we can anticipate our own reactions (and the reactions of our spouses), we may be able to reduce the ferocity of arguments in a major way – ideally solving issues as they arise without pushing one another to feel threatened or neglected.

Does this apply to you and your spouse? Feel threatened or neglected? Please comment below.

For more tips on how to end fighting and feel more love, check out our StrongMarriageNow System.


Dr. Dana Fillmore and Amy Barnhart, co-Founders,

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