Have you ever had one of those weeks when life gets particularly crazy? Of course you have, so I hope you'll forgive me for posting a repeat Dismaying Story from a few months ago.
My husband and I don't argue very often. When we do, though, it always turns into a yelling match. We end up fighting about anything and everything, oftentimes completely losing track of whatever issue started the whole thing. By the end of it we've both had our feelings hurt and the mood in the house can take days to return to normal. It seems so pointless but we keep doing it. How can we stop?
Weary Sparring Partner
Anger is a hungry emotion, very much like a fire. It can start with a tiny spark and may smolder slowly for a while, then when the feeling gets out of control it just roars ahead, chewing up everything in its path.
This can happen when we have an argument with our spouse. Let's say the incident starts because something bothers you. You raise the issue with your husband and tell him you're not happy about it, not happy at all. He feels criticized, so now you are both upset. He might believe your complaint is unjustified and say so. Even if he thinks you have a point, he may not want to acknowledge that right now because he's in defensive mode. He hates feeling attacked. This isn't the first time the two of you have argued, so he may still harbor unresolved frustrations from the last time. These are likely to come bubbling to the surface and spray all over you.
His negativity adds to your frustration. You feel justified in thinking you've been wronged, otherwise you wouldn't have voiced your complaint. Now he's a jerk not only for upsetting you to begin with, but also for the insensitivity he is showing right now. So you unload this new judgment on him and toss in the original again for good measure. That jacks him up even further, and on you go.
Does this sound familiar? This spiraling increase in emotion is a common pattern.
Okay, I have a few questions for you. First, you just told him you're unhappy. Why did you do that? I know it sounds obvious but spell it out for me.
Right. You're arguing with him because you're upset, you figure it's at least partially (or maybe even totally) his fault and you want him to know about it. Okay, good. Now what if one of you admits fault? It might go something like this.
"All right, I'm sorry," he might say. "I shouldn't have done that, okay? Now can we just drop it?"
Is the argument finished at that point? Is everyone happy and friendly again?
I doubt it. A common retort might be something like, "Why do you have to do stuff like that? You know it upsets me." At which point he defends himself and on it goes. If you truly want to break this pattern, you must realize a few things about this scenario.
Unexpected Realization #1: A mistake by your partner does not give you a justifiable reason to vent anger.
Sure, everyone gets frustrated when their partner does or says something we don't like. That is natural and understandable. The dangerous part is when you take that a step further and believe the mistake then clears the flight path to bomb your husband with furious barbs. "I'm justified in saying whatever I feel like," your angry inner voice says, "because of that awful thing he did."
No, you're not. You are justified in finding a solution to your problem and that often means discussing the issue with your spouse. That doesn't mean, however, you have the green light to dump on each other to your heart's content. As the above scenario shows, that usually just gets in the way.
Does that mean you have to avoid ever speaking to each other in anger? Of course not. No one is perfect so that's going to happen occasionally in every relationship. The key is to realize that happens in spite of our best intentions; you should not accept it as a reasonable and normal way to proceed.
Unexpected Realization #2: When you argue like this, you are not actually trying to fix the problem.
I said this in a different form a few paragraphs ago: Why did you say that to your husband? "Because I was angry."
Wrong answer. You should be saying things to each other because you want the original problem to go away. Instead you add a new problem by spouting anger. Now you have to get past all the spiteful things you just said to each other. Have you ever started out arguing about one thing, then one of you says something nasty and the fight ends up being about those hurtful words? If so, you're not alone.
Try this. The next time you feel the emotional temperature starting to rise between the two of you, promise yourself you won't say anything for which you might have to apologize later. Instead, work toward resolving the original issue. You'll find this forces you to have an entirely different focus.
Let's pick an arbitrary scenario. Suppose you and your husband are alone and he makes a joke about your mother, which you don't appreciate. What should you do? You could tell him how awful he is but that just starts the familiar cycle. Instead, think about what your goal should be. You want him not to make jokes like that anymore. So tell him that. He might be defensive for a while or claim you're just being overly sensitive. Stick to your guns, though, and present a reasonable argument as to why you don't like that sort of thing. I bet you can get him to apologize for upsetting you and agree to cease and desist with the Mom-in-law jokes.
Now here's the really important bit. You have now won the argument. You have accomplished all that is possible to achieve. At this point you must stop arguing. That means no more complaints or discussion of his flaws, no more requests for change, and no more explaining how upset the whole thing has made you. Accept his apology (out loud so he knows about it) and end the discussion.
We're all human, so it may take a while for your blood pressure to recede. That's fine. Find a quiet corner to calm down if need be. Just don't go on arguing for no purpose because of it.
I wish I could tell you that this knowledge will make it easy to avoid raging confrontations. The truth is, the anger is still hungry. When that jolt of furious adrenaline hits us inside, lashing out can feel good. Just realize that when you do that you are no longer working toward a solution; you are simply giving in to those destructive emotions. Keep your focus on the real issue and you will be much further ahead.