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When You’re Not Even Arguing About The Same Thing: 3 Levels Of Relationship Conflict

Ever find yourself in the midst of an argument, thinking, we aren’t communicating at all?

Or, he just doesn’t get it.

Or, what planet is she living on?

Sometimes the chasm is less about the subject of the argument than the level it’s taking place on. Or rather, the fact that the two of you are communicating on different levels entirely.

I think of communication as happening on three levels:

  1. Content
  2. Process
  3. Structure.

1. Content

Content is the topic of the argument.

You want to do the washing up before sex. They don’t.

He wants to arrive on time. She is often late.

Content is what the argument is ostensibly about.

Usually, we think this ‘content’ is what we’re discussing. We find it hard to understand how things get so frustrating.

But often, at least for one person, an argument is actually about process.

2. Process

Process is how you argue.

You raise your voice and scream like a reality TV star.

He becomes passive aggressive.

She acts aloof and disinterested.

The way a person acts when arguing – often unconsciously, or because that’s how their parents argued, or because it’s become a habit over time – can escalate or derail the conflict.

You may have been mildly irritated they were late, but their apparent disinterest makes you totally fed up. They don’t give a shit about anyone but themselves.

You were perfectly willing to negotiate about the dishes, but not when they’re yelling and carrying on like that. Fuck ‘em.

Other times, for one or both people, the emotional substance of the argument is taking place on an even deeper level – the level of relationship structure.

3. Structure

Structure is the way you perceive the nature of your relationship. It’s not directly related to the present topic of conversation, but it underlies how you see the character of your connection.

You want a monogamous relationship and they don’t.

He wants to get married and you don’t see the point.

She is more focused on her career than the relationship.

When there’s a fundamental disagreement about the nature of the relationship, then this can infect every difficult conversation you have.

The person who is unhappy with the status quo can perceive every point of contention through this filter, seeing it as yet more evidence that they’re not loved as they want to be.

When one person seems to be constantly ‘picking a fight’, unhappiness about the structure of the relationship can be the real issue.

How To Argue More Effectively


If you argue a lot but it’s generally about what it’s about – congratulations! You may just be passionate people. (Or ill-suited. Awkward.)

In this case, stick to talking about the issues rather than getting personal, avoid words like never and always, keep your cool.

Another neat strategy is to paraphrase the other persona’s argument as though you were on their side – it makes you let go of your perspective long enough to genuinely understand theirs. It can be powerful!


If your arguments tend to escalate out of all proportion to the issue, then one or both of you may be upset with the other’s argument process.

You could pause the argument or make another time to tell each other what upsets you about the other’s arguing style.

Her swearing triggers memories of your parents’ fighting.

His tone of voice makes it hard to feel like he cares.

Understanding your respective argument processes can make life’s inevitable arguments go more smoothly.


If you seem to be fighting all the time, then your relationship structure may be the real issue.

In that case, you may want to have an open talk specifically about the nature of your relationship.

This can be the most difficult relationship conversation to have, but also the most fruitful.

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