Relationship Argument Patterns

Relationship Argument Patterns

Short arguments may happen several times a day over a small issue that is resolved at the time.

Serial arguments are conflicts about the same topic that occur over a period of time and may appear to be unresolvable.

Public issue arguments are conflicts that are focused on concerns outside of the interpersonal relationship. Potential behavioural implications are not closely tied to the day-to-day functioning of the interpersonal relationship. Examples of these could be politics; women’s rights, the environment etc.

Personal issue arguments are conflicts that focus on issues related to the interpersonal relationship. These conflicts may refer directly to each person’s behaviour in the relationship. Examples of these arguments could be household chores, one’s hurt feelings, communication, trust etc.

Demand/withdraw patterns are when one partner attacks the other for perceived failings; e.g. not doing their fair share of house chores. The other partner avoids conflict by withdrawing either physically: leaving the home or emotionally: not communicating. Men are more likely to withdraw from an argument than women. This is due to male physiology.  Men find it harder to reduce their levels of stress or anxiety in comparison with women. This may develop into a more complex pattern where one partner constantly withdraws. While the other partner tries to bring them back into the relationship by demanding their commitment or attention. This drives the partner further into a withdrawal until the chaser gives up and retreats.

Attack and counterattack patterns begin with one partner criticising the other. The partner retaliates with equal ferocity and criticises something about their behaviour. Contempt may also be held by either partner towards the other. This often leads to an escalation of the argument where both parties are left feeling hurt and resentful making it harder to resolve problems and compromise.  This may lead to stonewalling, and at its most extreme the couple may start to live separate lives.  During the escalation of conflict it may also lead to ‘belligerence’ where vicious name calling and hurtful unproductive attacks occur.

Attack/defend patterns are where one member attacks while the partner defends themselves from the criticism. This leaves one partner feeling unheard and unsupported while the other feels reprimanded and belittled. This may also escalate to belligerence with the attacking partner beginning to name call while the other fails to take any responsibility for their part in any of the problems.

Withdraw/withdraw patterns are where both couples withdraw and fail to communicate their needs and the issues that are bothering them. The couple fails to connect in a meaningful satisfying way. With any sign of conflict both partners disconnect from the relationship and remain silent, possibly even for days. It is within the non-communication period that the argument is occurring. Although there are no bad words or raised voices the silence has a similar impact upon the relationship as for highly critical/contemptuous couples.  In this pattern one partner may agree to simply avoid conflict but may often fail to deliver on their promise. This may lead to increased levels of unspoken dissatisfaction with the relationship and higher levels of anxiety and distress.

Victim/aggressor patterns are where one partner takes on the role of victim and one takes on the role of aggressor. The victim gives up their power and responsibility by blaming the aggressor. While the aggressor takes the power and oppresses the victim through verbal putdowns. The victim may make statements similar to, “you always treat me badly why do you treat me this way?” while the aggressor may say “it’s your fault you made me act like this towards you.”

Couples may use different patterns during arguments and roles may change. But generally they will stick to a particular pattern and role which they believe will produce the best result and feel most comfortable with.

Christopher Swane - Relationship Counselling and Psychotherapy - Wellington New Zealand