argument-intimacy cycle

Less Quality Time with More Conflict? Change that Now

A common needy behavior is to complain and argue in order to get more attention and affection. Could this be what your spouse is doing with you?

arguing-intimacy cycle
Arguing could be your spouse’s attempt to restore intimacy

Complaining and arguing may be your spouse’s way to make sure that you still care. For couples who have become emotionally distant, arguing is often a substitute for spending quality time together. It draws the other person in to a very focused, one on one interaction with lots of emotion.

For many people, any interaction is better than no interaction at all–even if that interaction is negative.

If intimacy and reassurance follow your arguments with your spouse, you can expect the arguing to continue. Many people are willing to argue for three hours in order to get the emotional connection that is otherwise missing.

If you don’t spend positive time together, your spouse may create negative time together as a substitute. This is no different from what children will do to get attention from their parents.

Some couples fight for years without ever ending their marriage. In such cases, it may be the fighting which is holding them together. If the fighting stops without being replaced with positive time together, you can expect such a relationship to end. The fighting, while unhealthy, provided just enough connection to keep them going.

Needy people tend to prefer a bad connection to no connection at all. This will explain many relationships that you see.

Secure people either build their relationships or end them. Needy people seek to maintain even a terrible relationship. If you can’t stand your spouse but would be terrified of losing your spouse, you are in the needy category.

You can work on overcoming neediness with my book on the subject.

Are you spending less time together, but arguing more?

Arguing often happens after some change that makes a couple spend less time together. For example, having a child, starting a new career, or going back to school. In such situations, people often feel guilty if they demand time and attention. Their spouse is busy for a good reason. But, when patience changes to feelings of loneliness and neglect, conflict will start over things that didn’t matter before.

It’s often easier for someone to be angry than to admit they are feeling lonely. Many people don’t even realize that is why they are angry. Unfortunately, the busy partner usually focuses on the anger and becomes defensive–completely missing the underlying cause of not enough quality time together. The defensiveness compounds the problem by creating even more distance. At first couples tend to make up and this gives the neglected person attention and reassurance.

Whenever fighting seems to fix a problem, it is probably because of the emotional connection that happened afterward and not the fight itself.

argument-intimacy cycle
Arguing initially creates some closeness with making up.

However, fighting without making time for each other doesn’t fix the problem of not enough time together. Feelings of loneliness and neglect soon return, but stronger than before. This prompts arguing, and so the vicious cycle repeats. Each time the cycle goes around, the make-up period will become shorter and shorter until eventually there no longer is a make-up period. At that point arguing leads directly to increased anger and emotional distancing.

arguing distance cycle
Continued arguing eventually just creates distance

Continued conflict and neglect continues, with little to no positive interaction; then feelings of love disappear. Usually for the neglected person first.

Whenever you prioritize work, children, parents, school, or anything except God over your spouse you greatly increase the risk of divorce. It does not matter how valid your reasons. Love will not run without the fuel of positive, regular, one on one time together. Even if you can’t get out, you still have to have one on one time at home to keep your relationship alive.

Explanations for why you can’t spend time together will never decrease the need for time together.

It is my experience that people who say they can’t find time to be with their spouse suddenly can when their spouse files for divorce, wants to separate, or is having an affair. It’s not that they couldn’t before, it’s just that they didn’t make it a priority and their spouse knows it.

Ending the neglect-argument-distancing cycle

As with all conflict, the place to start is not by trying to prove your spouse wrong. That is like trying to dig yourself out of a hole, which just creates a deeper hole. Instead, you validate what your spouse is saying and create more time together. The time is not for talking about your problems. The time is for enjoying your relationship again.

Talking about problems will never achieve the connection that agreement and empathy will.

Learning to agree and empathize, while also being a desirable and loving spouse, will completely take care of the kind of problem I am talking about today.

If your relationship is already distant, you can’t start dating your spouse right away or even spending one on one time together. Your first step is just to help your spouse relax with you. That takes as long as it takes. Then you work to help your spouse enjoy talking with you. You don’t move on to doing things together until that enjoyable talking is going well. This step by step relationship building is the natural and fastest way to improve a relationship. Moving too fast creates rejection and prevents relationship building progress.

Rebuilding follows the same progression as when we initially meet someone when we are single. We must be careful not to move faster than the other person’s feelings grow or we will be rejected.

You should have three long term goals for restoring connection:

  1. Dating your spouse at least once a week,
  2. Spending one on one interactive time with your spouse at home each day, and
  3. A sexual relationship you both enjoy.

At no point does it become necessary to work together as a couple.

The idea that we must work together as a couple to fix our relationship is a result of false teaching. You can know that because relationships build better when we don’t work as a couple. The way we have good relationships with anyone is by helping them to like us and using boundaries to keep their respect. Nothing about that involves doing any kind of work together.

Don’t take my word for it. Try it and see. You will find that a few minutes of validation will accomplish what hours of discussion won’t–which is bringing the two of you closer. Also, one good boundary will stop a behavior that years of discussion won’t.

Have you learned that you should prioritize your children over your spouse?

If you have, it wasn’t from the Bible.

The only time we ever want to prioritize our children over our spouses is in the case of child abuse from our spouse. Otherwise prioritizing our children can result in them having parents who have a bad relationship or are divorced. That is not the way to love your child or your spouse.

People who won’t use childcare to be with their spouse are not doing their children any favors.

What does this look like in real life?

Let’s consider a hypothetical situation where a husband, I will call John, is staying up late using the internet rather than going to bed with his wife, Susan. (For your situation, you can substitute spending time on social media, with the kids, at work, with friends, and so forth). Susan wishes John would spend more time with her and go to bed with her. At first, she asks a reasonable question, “John, why do you need to use the computer until 2:00 am?” 

When we ask why questions about things we don’t like, we will get defensiveness.

John answers Susan by saying, “What’s wrong with surfing the internet? You have a lot more free time than I do. Nighttime is about the only time I can have a little peace and quiet by myself.” Susan responds by pointing out that he cares more about being without her than being with her and they argue until 4:00 a.m., getting so tired they eventually make up.

It has worked this time and John temporarily gives up his nighttime computer usage. In your case, your spouse may come home earlier from work, put the kids to bed early to be with you, take you out instead of a friend, and so forth. However, things are likely to drift back to how they were before, just as they will with Susan, causing her to once again create an argument. Making up won’t be as good this time.

As it keeps happening over the next several months, at first they will have a lot of arguing and then they will just have distance and be used to living without much interaction. John may be okay with that because he gets to do his activities without having to argue with his wife. She is likely to either want to separate, divorce, or have an affair at some point, which will take John by surprise.

Many men and women believe the absence of conflict means things are going well–even if they and their spouse are not having quality time with each other. Just as with kids, silence may mean something is wrong rather than right. 

Although you may identify with Susan in this example, I want you to consider that you may be in John’s situation. Your spouse may be arguing or complaining about your activities because he or she needs more quality time with you.

My wife doesn’t care how much I work or play as long as I am making her feel important with good quality time together. Your spouse may be the same.

(By the way, if you are wondering what Susan should do instead of complaining or arguing, she should improve her behavior toward John while being less available for him. This combination will create more desire in him to spend time together. Needy people tend to do the opposite and spend more time with their spouse than their spouse wants–making their spouse want to get space).

The more distant your relationship, the more slowly you must rebuild

When people finally realize their marriage has become very bad, they often want to fix things quickly. I understand the desire, but relationships can’t be built quickly. Those who try get rejected.

We can’t build our relationship faster than the other person’s feelings can grow. This is true when you are single and it is true when you are married. The fact that you were once closer does not change the process.

If your relationship is very bad, it could take a while just to get to the small talk stage. If you are at the small talk stage, it may take a while to get to the going out stage. At each stage you must be helping your spouse to feel valued and validated, while you also are behaving in a desirable way–just like when you were first dating. It works the same way except the pace is slower.

If you don’t know how to create connection or be desirable, then you can learn. Make sure you don’t shift into talking about problems with your spouse. That will not create connection, nor will it make you more desirable. You can work with a relationship coach to make sure you are using the most effective skills for re-attracting and reconnecting with your spouse.

The next time your spouse argues with you

Ask yourself if what your spouse is arguing about is likely to be the real cause of the conflict. Could it be that what your spouse is really reacting to is feeling neglected in your relationship? Could this be your spouse’s way of trying to get some connection with you, even if it is negative? If you think it is, then your spouse still desires to connect with you and you need to take advantage of that by making more time for him or her before your spouse gets to the stage of giving up.

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