Like so many of us, Rose Armitage, a 20-year-old from Las Vegas, is a crier during arguments.
It doesn’t matter how well-reasoned her points are or how much of the moral high ground she has, when she and her boyfriend start arguing, the waterworks begin.
“I can’t remember an argument in which I haven’t cried, but then I’m generally a crier,” she told HuffPost. “I cried this morning about a hard math equation. For me, I find that in a fight with my partner, I cry because I care. And sometimes because I don’t feel heard.”
Charles Darwin once declared emotional tears “purposeless,” but as Armitage’s example shows, tears aren’t just cathartic, they serve a purpose, communicating when our words fail. We might cry out of empathy for our partner, shock at hearing about something we’d been oblivious to or anger if another’s argument comes across as accusatory.
As Time magazine science writer Mandy Oaklander put it, “Tears are a signal that others can see.”
It’s a natural response to high-stress moments, but tears can be a pesky thing when they come mid-argument, especially if your partner sees them as a sign of weakness.
“Many partners grow resentful of the crier and feel that it’s a conditioned manipulation to gain control of the disagreement,” Carder Stout, a Los Angeles-area psychotherapist told HuffPost. “The crier also may be judged as emotionally unstable: ‘Why do you always cry? Get it together!’”
“We might be afraid that the conflict could lead to separation or loss. Instead of standing our ground or speaking our truth, we might be more worried that our partners will leave in the face of intense conflict.”
– Stacey Rosenfeld, a psychologist in Coral Gables, Florida
Why do we cry?
From Stout’s experience working with couples, the crier is usually responding from an authentic place.
“Perhaps they are traumatized, even frightened by confrontation, and the tears are a product of their fear,” he said. “Perhaps they feel that arguments lead to abandonment and they cannot bear even the thought of that consequence and therefore express their fragility.”
While some criers may feel ashamed and weak over their emotional display, “others are healing themselves through tears if they’re supported correctly,” Stout said.
Our inclination to cry may also be tied up in our attachment styles, or the way we relate to others in intimate relationships, said Stacey Rosenfeld, a psychologist in Coral Gables, Florida.
If you’re an anxious type, you’re hyper-aware of even the smallest fluctuations in your partner’s mood or behaviors. You might even consider those changes a personal slight or an indictment of your relationship. And you may get highly emotional and jump to conclusions in the midst of a Very Important Relationship Conversation, especially one that seemingly comes out of nowhere.
“If we’re anxious, we might be afraid that the conflict could lead to separation or loss,” Rosenfeld said. “Instead of standing our ground or speaking our truth, we might be more worried that our partners will leave in the face of intense conflict.” Hence, the waterworks.
Your tears might be met with empathy by a fellow anxious type or a securely attached partner, but they won’t go over well with an avoidant partner, Stout said. The avoidant wants nothing more than to walk away from what they perceive as histrionics. By their very nature, an avoidant type feels unnerved by too much closeness in a relationship; crying is the ultimate clingy offense.
It’s a toxic cycle that will continue to play out if the couple doesn’t learn how to deal with it.
There’s a gender dynamic at play here, too. Culturally, we tend to think of women as criers and men as stonewallers. But as Rosenfeld notes, that’s probably only because women are socialized to avoid expressing anger.
“As such, we often communicate anger in a diluted way, and crying is one way to dilute our anger,” she said. “We might fear, rightly so, how others will respond to our anger, as it could lead to rejection, loss or even violence.”
OK, so how do you bridge the emotional gap between a crier and a non-crier?
In the heat of the moment, don’t be afraid to call a timeout if tears come, Stout said. You know how some couples have safe words they use when sex gets too rough? Come up with one for when your argument starts to get too heavy, too.
Then, leave the room for a bit. Go catch your breath in the bathroom or take a walk.
“I often advise my patients to find a patch of earth and put their bare feet on the ground as a way to let go of anxious energy,” Stout said. “A 10minute break, however you choose to do it, works great.”
You also should come up with a game plan on how to deal with future fights. If you’re the crier, dig to understand what function your tears serve: What emotions lie behind the reaction? What worries or concerns are you trying to convey to your partner?
“Have a conversation with your S.O. when not in conflict about your tendency to cry and what the tears mean,” Rosenfeld said. “This can help them understand why this happens and what it means in the context of your relationship.”
The solution isn’t tear-free arguments for the rest of your life together but rather knowing how to cope with your emotions when the tears inevitably do come.
For Armitage, when a fight reaches a fever pitch, she and her boyfriend try to remind each other that they’re not fighting each other, they’re fighting the problem itself.
“And at this point, my partner is pretty used to me crying,” she said. “Really, I don’t think we should be afraid to cry, especially when you feel conflict creating some resentment. Like I said before, we cry because we care.”