Fighting With Your Partner Means You Have 'Hot Buttons'

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As I angrily packed away the bath products my partner had left lying around on the vanity, I sighed in defeat. I could easily get into another argument with them about where things were supposed to go but that wasn't the real problem. Sometimes, fighting with your partner means more than you realize. Because this was a fight we had often, I knew what really bothered me was the feeling that I had lost my personal space when we moved in together, not wherever they left the toothpaste that morning.

I wasn't about to bring up the real issue, though. It was too heavy a discussion and I worried that I wouldn't be able to explain to my partner how I felt without hurting their feelings. We kept on having tiny fights like this for months about which chores were whose responsibility, which pieces of wall decor should go where, and even what brand of cleaning products we should buy. Inevitably, we broke up for unrelated reasons but I was relieved to regain some control over my living space and essentially, my life.

I know now that living with a romantic partner might not be the best move for me and that if I do try it again in the future, I should probably be way more honest about my need to maintain some semblance of personal space.

Turns out, couples have tiny fights about random, little things like this all the time. Anita Chlipala, licensed marriage and family therapist and author of First Comes Us: The Busy Couple's Guide to Lasting Love, says this problem is so common that when she works with couples, she's usually listening for what they really mean rather than what they're verbalizing.

You too can figure out the true meaning behind those seemingly pointless fights you and your partner have repeatedly by asking yourself these three questions.

Are these fights ever really random?

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Probably not. Chlipala says, "It depends on the person and what they are sensitive to. Each person needs to be aware of these and they're called various names by therapists — hot buttons, triggers, enduring vulnerabilities, etc. I ask my clients to do a check — do they think they made a big deal about something small? If so, they can reflect on what the real issue was."

This is something you can try on your own. For example, if you find yourself fighting with your partner over their choice of movie or restaurant more often than you'd like, the real problem might be that you feel like your opinions go unheard. It seems simple but Chlipala says it takes practice.

Why do couples have these fights instead of saying what they actually mean?

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Because I like making a big deal about where we hang that wooden boat anchor? Not exactly. But I do care about feeling like my space is still my own.

According to Chlipala, "Sometimes people aren't aware of their triggers or they don't want to hurt their partner's feelings, so they don't say anything and it comes out in passive-aggressive ways." This is actually doing more harm than good to your relationship.

Over time, you or your partner is likely to harbor resentment toward the other person and the fights will become more frequent. It's better to be honest and talk about what's really bothering you, provided you've figured it out.

Do these fights ever help to resolve the real problem?

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Fighting in a relationship is only healthy if the outcome is productive, like when you learn something new about how your partner handles conflict or when you agree to do something differently moving forward. So if you're going to have random fights, they should at least be worth it.

Chlipala says they can be "if the couple notices the pattern and can talk about it. Like, 'Hey, this is the third time you've given me a hard time about going out with my friends. Do you not like them or is something else going on?'" For this to work though, she notes that both partners need to be honest about their needs and whether or not they're being met.

Not every silly argument has an underlying meaning but if you find yourself having the same kinds of fights about things that aren't that important, consider Chlipala's advice.

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