“Why do you always do that?” he asks his partner.
“Why do I always do WHAT?” Why don’t you pay attention to how YOU drive, huh?”
Sigh….as draining and anxiety-inducing this kind of conversation can be, it is far too common unfortunately. As we focus on healthy negotiating this month on the podcast, I had to mention the concept of chronic bickering, and why my clients who are caught up in this only create their own misery. But where did they get it from?
So often over the years clients would tell me that their parents never argued per se, but they did a lot of bickering. Daily. For years. This form of communication became normalized in the home and was expected. But the frightening thing about it being normalized is that it gave the impression that bickering was okay and it is anything but. My experience with folks who bicker with others is that they have a lot of control issues. Constantly trying to get the other person to see their point, to get the other person to understand, or that they need something. They are trying to “get” a certain result, hence the control issues.
Since control is all fear-based, it would be fair to guess that there is a lot of fear in these relationships. There are no boundaries, and therefore no risks being taken via confronting or being vulnerable. Sometimes you wish they would have a big honest fight, two people would finally make some choices – either to change, or to accept the other person where they are. Or to leave. At least that would be real and that would be honest.
Now, I don’t mean the every-so-often times we need to bring up little things that bother us. I am referring the constant nit-picking over surface issues without ever reaching resolution.
So if it isn’t healthy why is it such a common go-to, especially for couples? We model what we learned and saw in our early years, and typically we will connect with other adults who struggle in a similar fashion, so it “works” as a form of getting needs met. When unsure how to do healthier behaviors, we will all resort to immature ways to connect and problem-solve. If one of the pair operated in a healthier fashion using “I” statements and setting limits, the relationship probably would have changed or ended awhile ago.
It’s Emotionally Dishonest. There is little vulnerability with chronic bickering, which is why nothing can be truly resolved because the truth is not dealt with: how it hurts them when you forget to do things, or when you interrupt them it feels disrespectful. Going deeper, the two of you struggle to talk about the bigger issues of not feeling loved or connected in the relationship.
It’s Other-Focused and Often Sarcastic or Insulting. Since directness and vulnerability feel too threatening, folks often resort to passive-aggressive comments about the other person which can end up feeling shaming, and drawing a defensive reaction from the other. This rarely, if ever, creates a feeling of emotional safety and love in a relationship, and ironically creates more control issues that become impediments to self-reflection and then change.
Both Struggle with Fear. The bottom line with chronic bickerers is that they have so much fear around setting boundaries, negotiating with vulnerability and being solution-focused. Since there are no boundaries being honored, there isn’t healthy separation and therefore emotional trust. This creates a constant level of mild anxiety in the relationship, along with the enmeshment due to lack of boundaries. Focusing on others and trying to control their behavior simply can’t create a feeling of safety and trust.
So, although the occasional tiff here and there might be helpful to shape behavior and articulate needs in a relationship, chronic bickering without resolutions becomes corrosive and nonproductive over time. The next time you observe others – find yourself – falling into that trap take some time and think about what might really be going on, and gather the courage to face that.