The Story of a South Asian Couple: why they fight the way they do

After 2 years of marital stress, Sagar and Purvi decided it was time they needed to sit down and figure out what exactly the source of their relationship issues was.

Quickly, they identified the negative communication pattern that they found themselves in. When one of them felt criticized, they reacted with contempt, which made the other feel defensive until one of them (most often Purvi) became so overwhelmed with emotion that she disengaged from the argument. The pattern had become so ingrained in the way that they argued that they didn’t realize there were healthier ways of arguing.However, while they talked, they learned more about themselves and how they each contributed to the perpetuation of the problem. Here’s how Purvi answered the self-reflection questions:

She identified as feeling resentful and angry most often in the relationship.

1. What makes me feel these emotions in this relationship?

“I feel angry and resentful when it seems like Sagar has too high of expectations of me. For example, we both agreed that it was a good idea for me to change career paths. He knew I would be looking for work for a long time. But when he gets upset about me needing help to schedule interviews, I get really upset. Given the economy the way that it is, I don’t think I’m going too slowly. It’s like he expects me to have everything organized and figured out faster than is realistically possible.”

2. Does anyone else make me feel these emotions the way that my partner does?

“I remember feeling this way growing up when my father would expect me to work faster than I do or be interested in subjects that I am not interested in. He didn’t really see my strengths because they weren’t the strengths he wanted me to have. It was like he wanted me to be someone that I’m not and often it feels like Sagar feels the same way.”

3. How do I react when I feel each of these emotions?

“When I get angry or resentful, I attack. I say overly blunt things and then I get so sick of it that I just stop talking. What’s the point in talking if he’s not going to listen to me?”

4. Who else in my life reacts the same way I do with these emotions?

“I think my mom used to do the same thing. Whenever my dad would ask her why something was different than he expected, like why dinner wasn’t ready when he came home, she wouldn’t argue with him. She would just listen to whatever he said and then walk away and if she was really mad, she wouldn’t talk to him for the rest of the evening.”

5. When I feel each of these emotions, what experience in my childhood does it remind me of?

“I think when I feel angry or resentful of Sagar, it reminds me of all the things that I couldn’t say to my dad that I wanted to. Like ‘Please just like me for who I am’! Or ‘Cut me some slack. Maybe you’re better at this than me, but I’m not you so let me do this my way!’ And definitely I wish I could have told him and I wish I could tell Sagar that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness so he shouldn’t treat me like I’m inferior just because I don’t want to re-invent the wheel.”

Purvi’s answers provide crucial insight into why she behaves the way that she does during arguments. For one, she has seen her parents argue in a similar manner so her model for arguments comes from what she witnessed as a child. In addition, the criticisms that Sagar makes of her hit on a sensitive spot for Purvi, since her father used to do the same thing for her. When we are unable to resolve feelings about how our parents made us feel as we were growing up, if our partners do the same thing, we often react intensely and say things to our partners that we wished we had said to our parents.

Sagar engaged in the same exercise and here are his answers to the self-reflective questions:

He identified feeling frustrated and rejected most often in the relationship.

1. What makes me feel these emotions in this relationship?

“I feel rejected most often when Purvi acts like she can do things faster than me, like cooking. She just pushes me off to the side and takes over. I’m trying to do a nice thing for her by cooking for us but she makes it seem like she’d rather have the food a certain way than to let me help.

I feel rejected and frustrated a lot when she stops talking to me when she’s upset. She makes it seem like she doesn’t like me and that’s a really bad feeling. And I also feel that way when I have to tell her things 5 times, like putting the dishes in the dishwasher. It’s like she doesn’t take me seriously and doesn’t pay attention to what I say, like my words aren’t important to her.

I also feel frustrated when it seems like she’s selling herself short. She acts like she can’t do so many things that she can and she seems like she needs my help more than I think she does. I want her to be more independent.”

2. Does anyone else make me feel these emotions the way that my partner does?

“I remember growing up I’d feel really frustrated by my younger brother who always seemed to need my help with everything. Even when he was 8 he still wanted me to tie his shoes. It started to feel like he was getting clingy and I just wanted him to learn to be independent.

I also often used to feel rejected and frustrated by my mother. She was usually consumed with her daily routine and things that bothered her that when I talked to her it never felt like she was truly listening. She’d often forget things I told her or not pay as much attention to things that were going on for me (like if I got into a fight with a friend at school) than for things that were going on for her.

My mom also used to be really critical of me, my brother and my sister. She would let us try to help her around the house but when we didn’t do it the way she wanted or as fast as her, she would take the broom or the dishes away from us and tell us to just go play because she could do this twice as fast as us. It always seemed like getting things done was more important than spending time with us or teaching us how to do chores.”

3. How do I react when I feel each of these emotions?

“When I feel rejected or frustrated, I get angry. I tend to lose my temper and I know I can yell a lot.”

4. Who else in my life reacts the same way I do with these emotions?

“It might be my uncle (my mom’s brother). Whenever he would get upset, he would just yell and I think he was the only person that my mom actually stopped what she was doing to listen to. Sometimes it seemed like she knew more about my uncle than she knew about her children.”

5. When I feel each of these emotions, what experience in my childhood does it remind me of?

“I remember one time we were getting ready for a party at home. I had just come back from school and was upset because the teacher graded my test incorrectly and my teacher didn’t change the grade even though I showed her what was wrong. My mom noticed I was upset and asked me what happened. I told her while she was cooking 3 dishes. I could tell she wasn’t concentrating on what I was saying so I asked her to repeat what I said. She wasn’t able to because she had been distracted. I got so frustrated and felt so rejected by her that I resorted to yelling. I told her she didn’t care about me and she only cared about herself. It was at that moment she put the spoons down, sat down and listened. I think that reinforced for me that if I yell and get unreasonably angry when I feel rejected, that is when people will listen to me.”

From Sagar’s account, it becomes clear that he is repeating negative communication patterns that he observed and tried as a child. Yelling at his mother was the only thing that worked for her to take anyone seriously and he learned that early on. Such a pattern becomes so ingrained in a person that it seems like a natural way to react.

He also had an epiphany that while he felt suffocated and overly burdened by his brother who seemingly had difficulty engaging in age-appropriate tasks. Purvi’s questions and asking for help hits this sensitive spot and he reacts unreasonably to a reasonable request. In addition, he realized that Purvi acts the same way towards him as his mother when she pushes him aside to cook faster.

While both are equally responsible for ensuring that arguments don’t turn into nasty fights, changing their communication pattern requires an in-depth view into their personal histories to understand why they get into these fights to begin with. Once they accept and realize each other’s experiences as children, they will be more careful to not hit each of their sensitive spots and will be more understanding if the other takes a comment the wrong way. They will be much more likely to stop, back up and re-start the conversation using different words.

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  1. For some people such behaviour could be out of choice or habit also. However, reading this article sure seemed helpful. At least for once we could think of this being a possibility instead of writing off that relation considering it to be a failure.
    An enlightening article and a positive note!
    Keep up the good work!

    • Parijat Deshpande

      Most habits have a source and come from somewhere. When our partners let us know where their habits come from (and we tell our partners about our habits), we can have more compassion for each other. We are then more likely to work toward improving relationship problems with patience. It really is a more positive and encouraging view on relationship issues! I’m so glad that you found this article helpful and really appreciate your feedback. Thank you for your support!

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