You probably know exactly what I’m talking about when I say that every couple has That One Argument. It’s the thing you and your significant other return to again and again, the conflict that feels like it’s always lurking in the background, ready to be trotted out as ammo at a moment’s notice (Slate even has a recurring column about it). For me, it’s messiness — specifically, I’m fine with it and my fiancé is not, and all our apartment-related disagreements seem to eventually spiral back to a discussion of where is an okay place to leave one’s clothing and the difference between “tidy” and “anal.”
Ioana Cionea, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Oklahoma, has built a career out of studying these kinds of serial arguments. In a study recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, she and her co-workers examined what separates the good ones (productive, have resolutions, no one ends up making any sarcastic comments or holding back frustration tears) from the bad ones (nasty, go unresolved, people do one or both of those aforementioned things).
The key to having a good recurring argument with your partner, Cionea says — yes, there is such a thing — has to do with a concept called “argument interdependence,” or the degree to which solving the issue requires buy-in from both parties. She uses the example of buying a house: Let’s say, for instance, that “one of the partners prefers a move-in ready house, just a turnkey ready to go, and the other prefers something potentially cheaper that they could fix up,” she says. “Both of you need to work together to figure out it, so you’re interdependent when it comes to this.” To be clear, it’s not just big life decisions — it’s anything, big or small, where you can’t move forward without coming to some sort of joint conclusion. Just like you can’t buy a house as a couple until you choose one together, you can’t go out to dinner as a couple until you agree on where to go.
On the other end of the spectrum, an argument that would likely have less interdependence would be something involving “issues that might have to do with one person,” she explains. Let’s say, for example, that your partner “keeps leaving dishes on the counter instead of putting them in the dishwasher. So the perception might be low [interdependence] in the sense that we don’t necessarily need to work together to solve this issue,” because the argument would evaporate if just one half of the couple would just clean up their act. (Literally, in some cases.)
In the study, 675 volunteers were asked to describe a recurring fight they had with their partner, along with the level of interdependence they perceived it to have, the goals they had going into it, and how they typically felt about the relationship once it was done. When the argument was higher in interdependence, the authors found, the study subjects were more likely to approach it from a standpoint of cooperation, with goals like reaching a mutual agreement and reassuring their partner that they cared about them despite the disagreement. Arguments lower in interdependence, on the other hand, tended to have goals that were more about dominance; people went in more intent on winning, changing the other person’s behavior, or even hurting their partner. Overall, members of that first group reported being satisfied in their relationships.
The takeaway, Cionea says, is that the healthiest conflicts — the ones least likely to bleed into any longer-lasting unhappiness — are the ones framed as obstacles, not competitions. “One of the things we say in the paper is that maybe we should try, when we’re in these arguments, to think from this interdependent perspective,” she says. “Think about if there’s any way to reframe it from ‘me versus you,’ especially in arguments that are high stakes.” To put it another way: Do you want to bend your partner to your will, or do you work together to stop having this same dang fight? Even in cases where the argument is about one person’s behavior — let’s go back to the dishes-on-the-counter example — it’s possible to approach it from a point of interdependence: How can we work together to help you kick this habit that drives me insane?
Which, granted, is easier said than done. “That’s another line of research, where we’re trying to figure out what we can do,” Cionea says. “How, exactly, do we step back?” I’ll be standing by as they figure it out, struggling to remember that “any available surface” is not an acceptable substitute for a closet.