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How and why American couples argue

Arguments are a normal and often healthy part of a relationship. It all depends on picking the right kind of arguments, though.
arguing
Credit: Justin Helms / Unsplash
Key Takeaways
  • According to a YouGov poll, over 90% of American couples argue. Arguments are a normal part of a relationship.
  • People tend to argue about a partner's "tone of voice" more than anything else. Very rarely do they argue about religion, politics, or career choices.
  • Arguments are healthy for a relationship, but it all depends on the topic. Ignore the small stuff, and focus on the issues that actually matter.

What did you last argue about? It might have been with your partner, your friend, your parent, or that inconsiderate wobble of frogspawn three desks over, who stole your mouse last week and made it sticky. Yes, Alex, this entire article is about you.

We all argue. Even the soft-spoken, placid yogis of the world occasionally will argue. But the most common arena of discord is in our relationships. Both in terms of quality and quantity, few other aspects of our life involve such an intensity of feeling. It’s not easy living with or alongside someone, or to navigate the lawless soap opera of love. From toiletry clutter and Netflix cheating to cruel words and selfishness, relationships are the tear-moistened battlegrounds of our life.

But what are those things that get us most wound up? Thanks to a new survey from YouGov, we know the answer — for Americans, anyway.

How much is too much?

Sometimes a little drama in life can be fun. The adrenaline of a shouting match, the frisson of an angrily spoken word — it can feel exciting. But an exciting one-off rarely makes for a happy new regular. Arguing with a spouse or partner increases your blood pressure and screws up your immune system. According to the YouGov report, 26% of people in an argument raise their voice and 14% cry nearly every time. That’s really not so good on your body.

So how much are people arguing? Over 90% of couples argue. Nearly half of all couples will argue multiple times a month, and 8% said that they argued every day. Interestingly, only 3% of people said (or claimed) that they had no arguments at all. Clearly, arguing with a partner is a common and normal part of a relationship.

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Of course, different couples have different benchmarks for what counts as an “argument.” For some people, a firm tone or a rude request might be an argument. For others, it might require shouting and Loony Toon levels of wild gesticulating.

What are they (not) arguing about?

According to the YouGov survey, the most common reason for an argument is “tone of voice.” For 39% of respondents, it doesn’t matter so much what you’re saying, as how you’re saying it. Think about that for a moment. The most common cause of an argument is not the substance, but rather one’s attitude about it. Amazing. If you can restrain your sarcasm or snarky remark, many times you could avoid an argument entirely.

After that, matters are a little bit more practical. Americans argue about money, who does what chores (or who doesn’t), and relationships with family members. That’s probably true not just of Americans. It’s a subject of sitcoms and jokes since time began, but we really do bicker about our in-laws a lot.

Surprisingly, hot-button topics like religion and politics rank near the bottom of the list. Of course, one likely explanation is that these issues are resolved or accepted in the earlier stages of a relationship. If you go on a date and find your dinner partner to be a Christian, Republican banker to your atheist, Democrat yoga instructor, you may not see each other ever again.

Pick your battles and fight fairly

In some ways, an argument is a good sign. Arguments can be constructive steps forward: They clear the air and iron out creases before they become an uncrossable chasm. YouGov tell us that “[h]alf of Americans in serious relationships (50%) say they have a very or somewhat healthy style of arguing with their partner, while 30% say their style of arguing is very or somewhat unhealthy.” Contrary to popular belief, arguing can be healthy — if done properly.

In a peculiar way, an argument is a kind of compliment. People only argue about things they care about and, after all, the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. According to a 2019 study published in the journal Family Process, some of the happiest couples in the world argue just as much as everyone else. What the paper noted is that happier, longer-lasting couples argued about issues that actually matter, and they also resolve them. They recognize obstacles and look to fix the future. Smaller issues are ignored. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if your spouse forgets to put the cap back on the toothpaste tube; whether and how much to save for the kids’ college, however, does.

Jonny Thomson runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.


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