Consult with Krystal
I need help – my boyfriend and I keep fighting no matter what I try. We fight about anything and everything. Just last night, we fought about what to watch on TV. We used to never fight but ever since we moved in together, it’s been awful.
Sometimes, I try to not say anything when I’m upset so we don’t argue but then he does something else that upsets me, and I go off. Other times, I think we’re getting along and then he says something critical, and he gets mad when I get defensive.
I’m exhausted from fighting with him so much, but I don’t want to break up with him. I really love him, and we’ve even talked about getting married one day.
Please help – I’m so ready for us to just get along again!
-Angry and hurt girlfriend
Healthy communication can be learned
To better communicate together, it’s important to know that there is only one style of communication that will solve this constant fighting with your boyfriend. This communication style is assertive communication.
Assertive communication is when you identify clearly, and kindly, your feelings and what you need from someone while being open to compromise. If you ever have heard of “I” statements, this is an example of assertive communication. An “I” statement is where you take ownership for your feelings and needs without blame.
Communication styles which contribute to arguments
There are other communication styles; however, which are less effective. These communication styles are passive, passive-aggressive, and aggressive communication. Each of these forms of communication, while common, contribute to – and escalate – arguments.
It sounds like, at times, you may be using passive communication. You say that you sometimes try to not say anything when you’re upset. On one hand, this is a helpful strategy if you are planning on being assertive later. However, if you are trying to stuff your concerns and maybe just get over them, this is passive communication.
Passive communication is when you don’t bring up what you feel or need, even when it’s important, out of fear it may cause issues.
The most ineffective communication styles for conflict resolution
While passive communication leads to problems because concerns often fester when ignored, passive-aggressive and aggressive communication are even more harmful to a relationship. It appears that both styles may be utilized by one, or both, of you at times.
Passive-aggressive communication occurs when you try to ignore, hide, or stuff your feelings or concerns and then they come out sideways. If you are trying to not say anything about your feelings about something, but then are critical towards your boyfriend about something else that may not truly bother you this is passive aggressive. You may, for example, be truly mad that your boyfriend didn’t call when he was out of town for work but instead, you criticize him for the way he loaded the dishwasher.
The silent treatment is also passive-aggressive (and abusive).
This way of communicating in hurtful, and ineffective, because it does not address the true root of the problem. It also makes the other person defensive as passive-aggressive communication feels like an attack (hence, the aggressive term).
What you must stop saying first
To begin to solve how you and your boyfriend keep fighting, the first step is to intervene on any aggressive communication. It’s unclear to me how often this may be manifesting in your relationship. However, with your ongoing fights, it is probably occurring at least sometimes. You mentioning you “go off” sometimes sounds like this may be aggressive too.
You will want to practice eliminating any forms of this most overly unkind style of communication from the way you speak to your boyfriend. To avoid codependency, you must focus though on changing your aggressive communication rather than fixating on what he’s doing wrong. Although, this is where healthy boundaries come in which we will address in a moment.
Aggressive communication is where you are directly hurtful and critical. It may look like name-calling, yelling, and/or attacking another person’s character. If you call someone “lazy” when you are mad the didn’t wash their dishes, this is an attack on their character.
When you are assertive, you address the behavior which is the concern without disrespecting someone’s innate being and self-worth.
Related: Is it your fault if you’re abused?
As you read this, you may be feeling bad or embarrassed. Please know that it is understandable that you may have been communicating in less effective, or kind, ways with your boyfriend.
Many of us did not learn how to effectively, and kindly, discuss concerns in a relationship growing up. There is no shame in this. The most important thing is that you are here and working towards healthier communication.
As Maya Angelou says, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
You may choose to be self-compassionate which means to be understanding, and validating, towards yourself. Consider how, perhaps, ineffective communication was role modeled to you growing up. Then notice that, of course, you have struggled to communicate effectively with your boyfriend thus far.
You may also choose to have compassion towards your boyfriend. He also didn’t have perfect communication role models growing up as there is no perfect person.
Related: What is self-compassion?
There is no perfect relationship
Compassion reminds us there is no perfect person. We will all make mistakes throughout our lives. Given this, there is no perfect relationship as a relationship is made up of two imperfect people trying to navigate life, which is often complex, together.
Therefore, no matter who you choose as a partner, there will be inevitably arguments and misunderstandings in the relationship. When I was training to be a couple’s therapist, I first heard, “pick a partner, pick a set of problems.”
This means that all relationships have unsolvable problems. These are issues that, no matter what, a couple will never agree on. Most relationship problems are unsolvable – research finds 69% of the issues in any romantic relationship are unsolvable!
This means couples needs to get good at discussing issues effectively.
Figuring out your needs and boundaries
If you feel emotionally safe in your relationship, the fact you are fighting so much with your boyfriend sounds solvable. You just need better assertive communication skills it seems.
With assertive communication, you want to address your feelings, needs, and/or boundaries in a clear, kind manner. Therefore, it’s essential to consider what is truly bothering you when you feel angry towards your boyfriend. You want to do this, ideally, before you talk to him.
Anger is always a sign of an unmet need or limit. If you feel angry, for example, when your boyfriend runs late, this is a sign your boundary is that you need to leave on time for events.
The fighting also began, you say, when you moved in together, so it makes me curious if you have needs, or limits, around sharing a house. These include the division of chores, how clean the house is kept, and how you spend free time together.
What to literally say
You may have multiple concerns. This is to be expected as you are fighting a lot but to be effective you want to pick one problem at a time to discuss. Otherwise, when we kitchen sink our concerns, it makes the other person defensive. It also does not allow us to effectively solve the issues as it’s too much information all at once.
To be assertive, notice a need, or limit you have. Then you can use one of my favorite Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills called, DEAR MAN. This skill provides you a literal script once you know what you need.
First, you want to Describe the facts of the situation. Then you want to Express your feelings (not thoughts) about the situation. You will then Assert your need or boundary. Finally, you positively Reinforce the other person meeting your needs if possible. You basically tell them what they get if they give to you.
The MAN part is how you assert yourself. You want to stay on topic which is Mindful. You want to Act confident rather than passive, or aggressive. Finally, you want to be open to compromise which is Negotiate.
Practicing assertive communication
When you are first learning how to be more assertive, you may choose to journal your DEAR Man script before speaking to your boyfriend.
Again, you want to choose your concern. For example, maybe you are tired of him leaving clothes on the floor. Your need then is for him to pick up his clothes. You will want to say just the facts first. To describe the situation, you may say “I notice that sometimes you leave your clothes on the bedroom floor after you take them off.”
Then you will want to express how you feel about this. Pro tip: If you say, “I feel that…” you are about to say a thought rather than an emotion. Expressing yourself this way increases the likelihood of being critical and making the other person defensive i.e., “I feel that you expect me to be your mother.”
To be effective, you want to express an emotion. You may say, for example, “I feel frustrated about this.” Next, you will assert your need, or boundary. “I need you to please pick your clothes up off our bedroom floor.”
You may reinforce this by saying something like, “If you’re willing to do this, it will help us argue less.”
Then you want to be open to compromise. Maybe he struggles to pick up after himself so you come up with a solution of keeping a hamper by the bedroom door so it is easier than walking to the laundry room.
Practice not perfect
Again, as there is no perfect person or relationship, you will be practicing assertive communication forever. You will also naturally make mistakes – progress not perfection is the goal.
If you feel angry while trying to assert yourself and you’re beginning to become passive-aggressive, or aggressive, take a time out from the conversation.
You literally can’t think through problems when you are too angry. This is related to the fight-flight response in our nervous systems and brain. To be effective, you must take a break and return to the conversation later when you can be more clear-headed.
If you want to learn more about how to be an effective communicator, you may choose to take my course Confidently Authentic: Stop People Pleasing and Start Being True to Yourself. In this course, you learn more about DEAR MAN as well as many other skills. Another skill featured in Confidently Authentic is what to do (and say) when people do not honor your needs and limits.
Ultimately, it’s not about the fact you argue with your boyfriend, it’s about how you do it. Again, if you feel emotionally, and physically, safe with him this seems like a problem you can solve together.
Reduce aggressive communication and begin communicating more assertively. Take your time to consider your needs and expressing yourself.
If you feel stuck moving forward, remember there are supports such as my course, Confidently Authentic: Stop People Pleasing and Start Being True to Yourself, which features the skills, I teach all my clients for effective communication. You may also choose to do individual, or couples, therapy.
Sending you and your boyfriend healing, peaceful energy!
About The Author, Krystal
Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist with over a decade of experience. She has focused her entire career to empowering people to heal from unhealthy relationship processes. She teaches the skills and tools necessary to have a life filled with healthy and loving relationships.
This passion led her to write her best-selling books and create courses. Her books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence have helped many people heal.
Her course, Confidently Authentic: Stop People Pleasing and Start Being True to Yourself, provides the skills necessary to have a healthy relationship. This course features over a year of relationship skills you would learn in therapy. Students share this course has been “life changing.”
Each week, she answers your relationship questions from a place of expertise and compassion. To submit your relationship questions, please DM us @confidentlyauthentic.com or you may send an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to submit your question.