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  • Writer's picturehayneslamottepsych

4 Common Triggers for Relationship Conflict

What causes two people who care a great deal for one another to have arguments? To be so focused on being right or making the other person hurt the way that they hurt you?

Donald Peterson, a psychologist at Rutgers University, studied this phenomenon and identified 4 common triggers for arguments among couples:


The first common trigger of relationship arguments is criticism. Criticisms go beyond mere comments, requests, or complaints in that they have a judgmental value attached to them. The person perceiving criticism often feels accused of being wrong, stupid, selfish, lazy, irrational, cruel, childish, broken, inadequate, and the list goes on.

One of the reasons we can become sensitized to conflict in relationships and experience it more often is because we develop a familiarity with our partner’s dissatisfaction. As we do, mere observations begin to be read as criticisms.

For example, “I noticed the light got left on again last night” can be read by the receiver of the comment as “you forgot again because you’re an unreliable flake.” This message the receiver takes away, regardless of the intentions, are likely to cause that person to become defensive, escalating the conflict.

Illegitimate Requests

The next common trigger of relationship arguments was termed illegitimate requests based on the receiver’s perception of the request. Of course, in the eyes of the requesting partner, the request is likely very reasonable! These refer to requests that strike the recipient as unfair either because it violates a(n often unspoken) norm within their family culture or because it threatens a strongly held value or need.

One example of this is a partner who is reminded about a house task right after walking in the door from a stressful day at work. Even though from the other partner’s perspective they may have been waiting all day to ask or remind you of something, it is likely to be upsetting because the partner working outside the home may feel the need to unwind without thinking about other stressors after a long workday.

This can of course spark conflict over whether the request is truly illegitimate or not, with each partner asserting their perspective.

Cumulative Annoyance

The next category of argument trigger has to do with what Donald Peterson referred to as cumulative annoyance. These are things that, from the annoyed partner’s perspective, really would be okay if they happened now and again. “I’m not Mussolini, you know” they might say, “I just want my partner to remember to pick up their half-consumed Spindrifts every once in a while.” For that partner, the annoyance may stem from feeling like the family resources are being wasted, or possibly that their hard work is taken for granted.

For the other, “offending” partner, they may acknowledge the trait but not understand why it has the impact that it does. “Why can’t they just relax about it?” they may ask. “I often get distracted and by the time the drink warms, it doesn’t taste as refreshing anymore. My friends are able to put up with my quirks and imperfections – why can’t my partner?” Clearly, this trigger can escalate conflict and defensiveness in both partners.

Rejecting a Gesture

The final argument trigger involves rejecting a partner’s gesture or bid for affection or connection. An example of this might be attempting to show a partner the fruits of your labor cleaning and tidying the house, when they are distracted and half-heartedly say “that’s great.” This may then cause the rejected partner to feel hurt and get upset about the rejecting partner’s response.

The rejecting partner may then feel frustrated that their response to does not seem to be adequate. The stress of this dynamic can be compounded when they are aware of their partner’s sensitivity and actively try to provide the response they think is needed. When this falls flat, it feels very frustrating for both partners.


Criticism, Illegitimate Requests, Cumulative Annoyance, and Rejecting a Gesture are four of the most common triggers that incite arguments in relationships, and becoming more aware of these and how they function in your relationship can be helpful for developing new and healthier ways to deal with conflict.

If these represent the match that can light the fire, the true fuel behind arguments lies in each partner’s narratives about the relationship. Thus, in order to set the stage for healthy communication and less frequent and intense conflict in the future, it can be helpful to take a close look at these narratives and how they contribute to relationship conflict.

In this process, it is often helpful to have the assistance of a couple therapist as a third-party invested in supporting the health of your relationship. If you live in Seattle or the greater Washington area, and are interested in working on this via telehealth, please feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation today or learn more about my approach on my website.


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