Why do couples keep having the same few arguments over and over again?
Couples have an incredible capacity to repeat the same exact mistakes with one another by convincing themselves things will turn out differently than they had in the past.
VH1’s ‘Couples Therapy’
Couples Therapy, VH1’s new reality television show, features five “celebrity” couples (of the C-List variety) who attend “intensive relationship therapy.” The couples therapy show’s concept itself is an illustration of relationship blind spots. The show’s official website tells us that “for some of these couples, living under constant scrutiny from the media and fans makes it increasingly hard for them to stay together.” What’s their solution? Participate in yet another reality television show and jack up the scrutiny from media and fans even more!
Instead of doing everything in their power to insulate themselves from the pressures of their celebrity, they’re increasing these pressures and exposing their relationships to even greater stress. Given the couples therapy show notes, apparently these couples are blind to irony as well.
I’m sure the show will be edited in such a way that the couples will appear to ‘benefit’ from their “intensive therapy” (which includes hardships such as live-in therapists and a swimming pool) but there’s no question that as soon as the couples therapy show is over, back to their old habits they will go.
Following the same argument scripts
Once I’ve seen a couple argue in my therapy office I can pretty much write the script for any argument they are likely to have with incredible accuracy. Their arguments are likely to follow the same exact pattern regardless of the topics that spark them as it’s not what they argue about that makes a difference but how they argue about it.
The blind spot is that most couples can predict how their arguments will unfold with just the same accuracy as I can. They know their disagreement won’t be productive within seconds, but they stubbornly play out their parts and encounter the same bad result as they’ve encountered countless times before. They’re so annoyed that their partner “still doesn’t get it!” so desperate to “make them get it!” they feel compelled to make the same points they’ve made endless times before, only this time, louder and with more emotional oomph. They stick to the same script and not surprisingly it ends just the same way it always does.
How to work around argument blind spots
1. When you find yourself in an argument that screams deja-vu, do something different! Anything different or unanticipated is better as long as it deviates from the regular script and forces a different reaction. If you usually cry, take a deep breath and smile. If you usually clam up, try mentioning how you feel in that moment. If you usually accuse your partner of not caring, tell them you know they meant well regardless.
2. If you’re having the same argument over and over, it is because you each feel misunderstood by the other person. Try to convey empathy about how your partner feels before charging ahead with your accusations or defenses. You can read about how to convey empathy accurately here. Once your partner feels you really ‘get it,’ they will be less angry and more reasonable and you will be following a different script.
Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, keynote speaker, and author whose books have already been translated into thirteen languages. His most recent book is Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013). The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem (Walker & Company) was published in January 2011.
Dr. Winch received his doctorate in clinical psychology from New York University in 1991 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in family and couples therapy at NYU Medical Center. He has been working with individuals, couples and families in his private practice in Manhattan, since 1992. He is a member of the American Psychological Association.
In addition to the Blog on this site, Dr. Winch also writes the popular Squeaky Wheel Blog on Psychology Today.com, and blogs for Huffington Post.