Let me open this post by telling you something you already know – couples fight. It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to understand that much. But what most of us don’t really get is why. You may not understand why you fight with your significant other despite your love and attachment to that person.
Two studies that came out of Belgium a few years back suggested that it boils down to two things: unmet emotional needs and the negative emotions people experience when those needs aren’t met. Truth be told, none of us can fully meet the emotional needs of our partners 100% of the time. So we fight.
Before going on to explain what leads to fighting, I want to make clear that fighting doesn’t mean a relationship is in trouble. Occasional fights are not the end of the road for couples. Fighting is a normal part of intimate relationships. The real question is how couples handle the issues that fuel their fights.
Unmet Emotional Needs
The Belgian research lays out five emotional needs that are common to most people. As always, there are exceptions to every rule. Some people do not have a need for all five. Others have needs of varying levels. This is what makes marriage relationships so tricky. Participants in couple’s counseling often have to learn what their partner’s emotional needs are, which they often find surprising.
Here are the five emotional needs described in the research:
Most people have a fundamental need to feel accepted by those with whom they have relationships. This is especially true of married couples. Each partner needs to know that the other accepts them for who they are. When a person feels accepted, there is less worry about disapproval or criticism. But the opposite is also true. A person who doesn’t feel accepted might also feel like every word or action by a partner signifies disapproval.
People also have an innate need to be connected to others emotionally. This explains why certain people can find themselves in the midst of a crowd and still feel completely alone. Without an emotional connection, other people being present is meaningless. In a marriage, that lack of connection can lead to all sorts of negative emotions.
With connection comes affection. Affection is what generates those warm feelings you have for another person. As humans, we need to know that other people – especially our romantic partners – experience those feelings toward us. Without them, the warmth and tenderness are missing.
The need to be independent, or autonomous if you will, is innate to human beings. Simply put, we all need to feel as though we have a certain measure of control over our own lives. When a husband or wife feels completely controlled by a partner, that loss of independence creates negative emotions that lead to fights.
Lastly, we human beings have an innate need to feel confident in our own competence. In a marriage relationship, it plays out in the self-confidence that we are doing our best to love, respect, and honor the other person. With a lack of confidence in one’s own relational competence, even the slightest negative word from the other person becomes a major issue.
Couples fight because of the negative emotions triggered by unmet emotional needs. Fortunately, couples can learn how to meet one another’s needs so as to minimize triggering those emotions. If you would like to learn how, we invite you and your spouse to consider couple’s counseling at our Westchester, NY clinic.