For three years, my ex and I had a perfectly rosy relationship. Sure, we fought just like any other couple, but our tiffs were infrequent and often resolved with a tear-soaked conversation about our feelings. But then we graduated from college, moved to a tiny studio apartment in New York City, and started really living together for the first time — the kind of living together that involves laundry, dishes, and a shared bathroom that gets really gross if you don’t clean it.
Suddenly, we were having the same fight over and over again, and we couldn’t get past it: I felt like I was cleaning everything on my own, and she hated when I asked her to pitch in. I was her girlfriend, not her mother, she told me more times than I can count.
Household chores aren’t the reason we broke up, but our arguments about the topic never got resolved. It was only after I started talking to relationship experts every day (as a sex and relationships writer, you get to ask marriage therapists plenty of questions) that I realized there was a deeper issue beneath my annoyance. I was hurt because it felt as if my partner didn’t respect or value my time.
It turns out, there’s often a fight beneath the fight. And lots of couples end up arguing about the same things (I’m far from the only person to squabble with her partner about the dishes). Relationship therapists like Darcy Sterling, Ph.D., LCSW, psychotherapist Vanessa Marin, and Rosara Torrisi, Ph.D., have helped plenty of couples work through their disagreements. And they constantly see common fights boil down into similar root issues that have similar solutions.
1. “You’re always working. I never see you.”
Whether you’ve been in a relationship for a few years or a few months, it can be difficult to fit everything into your busy days — and sometimes your relationship takes a backseat. Maybe one person is trying to build a high-powered career and needs to put in extra hours at the office. Or maybe it’s a new-ish relationship and one of you is trying hard to avoid sacrificing your friendships. “Why are you always out with your friends?” is another version of this fight Sterling often hears.
The general “spend more time with me” request can mean a few things, Torrisi says. It could be that your partner doesn’t feel like a priority in your life, or it could be that their expectations for being in a relationship aren’t being met. For example, if your partner thought that being with you meant they’d never have to go to family gatherings alone, and now you’re missing events because of work or plans with other people, then you’re not living up to their ideal version of a partner.
In either case, Torrisi suggests sitting down together and figuring out your expectations for time spent together. If your partner is insecure about being alone at parties or family dinners, try your best to work your schedule so you can make those events. If they don’t feel like a priority, make the time you can spend together into quality time.
“Most people don’t have endless amounts of time, especially people who are just beginning relationships and are often also trying to build a career,” Torrisi says. Maybe you truly only have a few hours every Friday to be in a relationship, but if that’s the case you need to spend those few hours being fully present with your partner. Put your electronics away, plan a date night, try new things together (both in and out of the bedroom), and talk about your relationship.
2. “Can you not be on your phone all the time?”
Having technology at our fingertips can be both a blessing and a curse to our relationships. On the one hand, there are dating apps that let us connect with people we never would have met. But then, once we’re in a relationship, the phone can become a distraction, Torrisi says. “What happens with phones is that they’re our primary soothing activity for anxiety and boredom,” she explains. That means that we gravitate toward our phones when there’s an awkward pause in conversation (which tends to happen often when a relationship is young) or when we’re bored sitting at home with a long-term partner.
Zack B., 27, constantly argues with his wife about spending too much time on his phone. His head is down so often that she accuses him of being addicted to technology. Typically, he laughs her comments off without addressing them.
Yet, couples who tend to have this fight are usually fighting about intimacy more than they are about phone usage, Sterling says. They just might not recognize that. It’s likely that Zack’s wife isn’t really concerned about how many YouTube videos he watches every day. She’s probably more upset that he’s stopped being as engaged with her as he was before the phone caught his attention.
The solution to this one is pretty simple: Put your phone away. “There are so many ways we can be more mindful about our phone habits,” Marin says. “I recommend that couples try to spend at least 20 minutes of cell phone-free time per day and have dedicated phone-free date nights.”
While you can’t expect to magically spend less time with Candy Crush and more with your partner overnight, you can make it clear to them that you’re trying. That way, the argument might be softer next time, because your partner can gently remind you of what you agreed upon.
3. “Would it kill you to vacuum?”
Any couple who lives together is likely to have a disagreement about chores now and then, but if you’re fighting about the dishes, trash, or any other household task what feels like all the time, there’s probably something deeper going on.
Molly M., 20, just moved into an off-campus apartment with her partner and, much like my ex and I, is experiencing this fight for the first time. Molly admits she’s “a slob,” and says her partner picks a fight whenever they feel as if they’re doing the brunt of the housework. The root of the problem, however, is that her partner often feels disrespected. When one person cleans everything and the other seemingly does nothing to help, it can feel hurtful.
So what can you do about it? First, if you’re the one doing the majority of the heavy housework lifting, be clear about how it makes you feel — ideally in a calm and kind fashion. Then, reevaluate how you divide the chores.
It’s a fight Marin has had with her own partner, and she solved it by making a list of every possible household task together. Then, they went through the list and assigned each item to each person. “This made it crystal-clear exactly how much work needed to be done and exactly who was doing what,” she says. “It also gave us the opportunity to hammer out an agreement that felt fair to both of us.”
Beyond making a list, this can provide an opportunity for the person who feels disrespected to express those feelings, because your partner almost never intends for you to feel that way, Torrisi says. “In a relationship, you’ll always have to balance skill sets, and not everyone is good at the same things,” she says. “Some people are good at keeping things tidy, and others aren’t phased at all by clutter.” There’s a good chance that your partner doesn’t even notice when the house crosses over from kind of clean to a total mess. It’s not that they don’t clean because they want to hurt you — tidying up just isn’t as big a deal to them.
So, when you’re making your chore list, keep your partner’s strengths in mind, too. Maybe they’re really good at managing finances, and that’s not your strongest skill. Then, one of their “chores” can be keeping a monthly budget, while you continue doing the dishes. Sometimes, just recognizing how your partner does contribute to the household can help alleviate some tension.
4. “Why does your ex like everything you post?”
It’s not too difficult to understand the emotion behind this argument: jealousy. And it’s not always about an ex. Jealousy can rear its head when one partner thinks the other is flirting with someone else and even when a partner’s celebrity crush comes up in conversation.
Matt, 20, had this problem with his ex-girlfriend. She had what he calls “a flirty personality,” and it bothered him when he saw her interacting with other men, even though he knew her flirting was harmless.
Tina, 23, also finds herself feeling jealous a lot, often when her boyfriend talks about his love for Emma Watson, an actress who looks nothing like her. If she’s his biggest fantasy, Tina thinks, then does that mean he’s not really attracted to her?
Insecurity is often at the root of jealousy — we get jealous because we worry that our partners aren’t invested in us anymore, or that we’re no longer “good enough” to satisfy their desires. “At its root, [jealousy is] a fear of loss: loss of a person, a situation, or of face. Until you’ve eradicated these issues in yourself, remind yourself that your jealousy has far less to do with what your partner is doing and is more deeply rooted in your own issues,” Sterling writes on her blog. Recognizing that your jealousy is about you, not your partner, can give you the perspective you need to start dealing with the insecurities that are making you feel vulnerable.
5. “Why don’t we have sex anymore?”
Anyone who’s been in a relationship long enough for sex to fade has probably uttered these words. But if you’re constantly upset about the amount of sex you’re not having, there may be a mismatch in the way you and your partner express intimacy.
Sarah, 25, has a much higher sex drive than her girlfriend. When the two don’t have sex as often as she likes, she admits that she eventually gets so frustrated that she gives her girlfriend the cold shoulder.
Again, the solution lies in communication and, specifically, in how we communicate. Usually, fights like this happen because each partner shows love in different ways, according to Gary Chapman, Ph.D.’s book “The 5 Love Languages.” For people like Sarah, sex is more than just a way to feel good physically. Her love language is physical touch, which means that kisses, caresses, and sex are how she shows her partners that she loves them and how she feels loved in return.
Sarah’s partner likely shows love in a different way (the other four love languages are: acts of service, gifts, words of affirmation, and quality time). When each person values different parts of their relationship, it can cause tension. The solution: Talk to your partner and figure out what each of your love languages are. In Sarah’s case, she could tell her girlfriend that sex makes her feel loved. It might not result in the bustling sex life she wants — because no one should pressure anyone else into having sex when they’re not in the mood. But, being honest about her feelings could help her girlfriend recognize why sex is so important. It might lead to more sexy nights or the kisses and caresses that Sarah also values.
When you find yourself fighting, don’t worry too much.
Often, people run scared when they start fighting with their partners, Sterling says. “We think conflict is the sign of a bad match. So instead of building those [conflict-solving] muscles and learning how to resolve it, most people jump ship.” Really, though, arguing is a normal part of every relationship, including non-romantic ones. And Sterling worries more when couples don’t fight than when they do — it’s usually a sign that either or both partners don’t trust that they can get through an argument. “They’re not being authentically themselves,” she says. “They’re walking on eggshells, whether they realize it or not.” Clearly though, we need to be able to express our feelings in order to resolve them.