Petty fights are usually about something deeper.
Even the most stable relationships have points of tension. It doesn’t matter if you had a perfect fairytale beginning, you’ll inevitably run into conflict with your partner — that’s just part of being human. But if you find yourself wondering, “Why do I pick fights with my boyfriend?” or, “Why are we arguing unnecessarily?” you might have gotten into an unhealthy conflict loop. Constantly picking fights with your partner could be a reflection of a deeper issue, and avoiding it isn’t going to help either of you become better as a unit.
You’ve seen this dynamic play out in other couples: the boyfriend who complains about little things, or the girlfriend picking fights for no reason. But it can be tough to spot the signs when your own relationship is in a communication rut. “Often when we don't know how to say hard things, we will let little or inconsequential things get big,” licensed marriage and family therapist Nicole Richardson tells Elite Daily. “This allows us to have the hurt or angry feelings we’ve been avoiding without having to say the difficult or scary things.” Cue the explosive fight over something small, like forgetting to put your socks in the laundry hamper or text your SO back about weekend plans.
That’s not to say that arguing is inherently a bad thing — it’s normal! “Conflict can be a powerful and important component to growth,” Richardson says. But the way you argue is important. If you constantly find yourself fighting with no real resolution, it’s time to dig a little deeper to understand what might be bothering you.
You Might Be Avoiding A Deeper Issue In Your Relationship
Pointless fighting often signals an underlying issue within a relationship that neither partner wants to talk about. Richardson says this can be about all sorts of things: a desire for attention, jealousy or trust issues, feeling lonely, or not feeling understood. Even your own history of trauma or relationship issues can come into play. Maybe you don’t trust your partner because you’ve been burned by someone else in the past, so you criticize the little things they do rather than bring up your fears directly.
The problem with this kind of conflict is that it’s bound to lead to hurt feelings. “Conflict that includes attacking each other's character and seeking to hurt the other person is detrimental to the relationship,” Richardson says. If your boyfriend or girlfriend is constantly picking fights (or if you’re the one prompting the arguments), you know all too well that this isn’t a fun dynamic. It’s hard to enjoy spending time together when there’s always underlying stress or frustration.
One way to tell if your arguments are unhealthy is to examine the end goal. “Even in the very best of relationships, there are going to be disagreements. Hopefully they never rise above the level of an argument, as opposed to all-out fights that can become toxic," Los Angeles couples’ therapist Dr. Gary Brown previously told Elite Daily. Healthy conflict comes from a desire to make the relationship better. "When arguing, both partners are engaging in a debate and the end goal is to find a way for both of you to be heard, understood, and to seek to learn," Dr. Brown said.
If this isn’t the case, take a step back and re-examine your feelings when you aren’t in the heat of the moment. “Even when something regrettable is done or said in a conflict, it is really important to take ownership and clean it up,” Richardson urges. “Often the worst thing a couple can do is argue, get mad, then not seek to clean it up with each other later and act like it never happened. It did, and while facing it can feel initially awkward, it will do your relationship a huge favor.”
Reframing Your Approach to Conflict
The only way out of this toxic loop is to find a new way to argue more productively. “First, take care of yourself,” Richardson suggests. “If you are tired, hungry, or so mad you can't think straight, that is not the time to confront an issue with your partner. You are far more likely to say something you don't mean and cause more harm.”
Go for a walk, take a few hours to yourself, and make sure you’re caught up on sleep and well-fed before you sit down for a serious conversation with your partner. “It can help to write out your thoughts to get them organized,” Richardson says. She suggests thinking through the following questions:
- What do I want from this conversation?
- Am I hoping my partner modifies their behavior?
- Am I simply hoping to feel heard?
“If you can't tell them what you need, you can't expect them to read your mind,” Richardson notes. Having a clear objective is the difference between a pointless fight and a productive one.
When starting the conversation, frame your language in terms of how you feel rather than what you perceive as your partner’s flaws. “I encourage people to avoid questions that start with ‘why’ because it immediately puts someone in a position to defend themselves,” Richardson says. “Talk about how you feel and how a behavior [or] comment has impacted you, then ask for what you need. Doing this when you’re calm makes you more approachable and increases your chances of getting what you actually want from your partner.” You don’t want to put them on the defensive. If you share your own feelings in a vulnerable and authentic way, your partner is more likely to respond positively. Even if you don’t come to a perfect resolution this time, you’re laying the groundwork for more effective communication moving forward.
If this still isn’t working, it might be worth seeking the help of a professional. “If you find that your fights are continuing without much in the way of healthy resolution, it may be a good time to seek out a couples' therapist to help the two of you get an objective perspective on why your dynamic has become toxic, and to learn some healthier conflict resolution skills,” Dr. Brown suggested. A third party can provide an unbiased, non-judgmental perspective on your relationship dynamic and how to improve it.
Even if your fights are really toxic right now, you’re doing the right thing simply by exploring and recognizing that fact. This is the beginning of changing your relationship for the better and avoiding petty fights — for the most part, at least. You may never agree on the next TV show to watch (an enduring relationship struggle), but at least you can talk about the big stuff from a foundation of trust and respect.
Nicole Richardson, licensed marriage and family therapist
Dr. Gary Brown, couples’ therapist