What starts fights between members of a couple and what do they fight about?

In the 1970’s a psychologist by the name of Don Peterson tried to answer this question. He found that typically there are four types of events that start or trigger arguments between partners. These include criticism, demands, cumulative annoyance, and rejection.

While much of this list might seem fairly obvious, it’s important to remember that in the heat of the moment we often lose sight of what we know to be true when we are calm and collected. Also, this list can be helpful in terms of knowing when to seek outside help through marriage or couples counseling.

Criticism: Verbally attacking

The most common trigger is criticism, and it is probably the biggest no-brainer on the list. It makes sense that criticism would lead to relationship difficulties. Unfortunately, Despite the fact that most humans intuitively know this, it hasn’t actually stopped us from verbally attacking one another (especially when we are feeling wounded and vulnerable).

Sometimes criticisms are obvious and intended. For example, Don is aware that he struggles with not bringing work home with him; He only becomes slightly annoyed when Chrissy points out that she’s noticing him focusing on work and not engaged with the children more during their bedtime routine. However, When she makes a statement about him being an “absentee father”, he becomes extremely upset and emotional.

To complicate matters, sometimes criticisms are unintentional. For example, a partner may make a statement that is intended to be constructive feedback or just an observation. However, it may be taken by the other partner as a negative comment about them. For example, Steve made the following statement to his husband Eric “sometimes you have a hard time dealing with stress.” He may have intended it to be a helpful observation. However, Eric experienced this as an unjustified attack on his character which led to defensiveness and an argument.

Demands: Making illegitimate requests

The second trigger for arguments are demands from one partner to the other that seem illegitimate or unfair to the recipient. For example, Rich has to work late often to meet certain deadlines. While Janice is somewhat understanding of this, she requests that he come home and complete his work there in order to have him in the house more which is comforting to her. Rich experiences this as unreasonable: “If I come home, I will have to shut myself away and you won’t see me anyway! Plus, if you and the kids do interact with me it will be distracting, it will take me longer to get done, and we’ll have even less time together!”

Cumulative Annoyance: “Really?! Again!”

The third item is what Peterson call “cumulative annoyance.” This means having the same annoyance occur with relative frequency. If Doug forgets to take out the trash now and then (something he has agreed to do on his way to work), Trish can tolerate it, but when he constantly does not do it, she becomes angry. Doug realizes that he consistently forgets to do this in his morning rush, but he figures that he never forgets the “big stuff” like mowing the lawn, plus he sees it as positive that he always makes it to work on time.

Rejection: Dismissing another’s gesture

The final trigger for conflict is rejection. For example, Sue reached over to hold Amanda’s hand as a sign of affection and a desire for physical intimacy, only to be met with Amanda taking her hand back and saying “not right now,” Sue felt rejected and became angry, which escalated into an argument.

Similarly, Jason went out of his way to do the grocery shopping on his way home so that Janet would not have to. Janet was annoyed, “why didn’t you tell me you were going to the store? I could have told you that we also needed more eggs and cheese.” Jason felt hurt and responded, “God, you’re so insensitive! You always complain that I don’t help out but you get pissed off when I do!”

So, why is this important?

This is a relatively simple list, and many of the things found in it represent normal human interactions. We have all engaged in (and been annoyed by) every behavior listed here. However, when interactions like these increase over time, they often lead to couples becoming more and more polarized (entrenched in negative patterns of interaction) over time. When this happens it can be vitally important to take steps to improve our relationships – whether that is making a concerted effort to improve things in the relationship or contacting a therapist who specializes in couples and marriage counseling.

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