Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Is This the Right Room for an Argument?

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.

Dear Andrew,

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

Dear Weary,

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.



  1. Anonymous3:39 AM

    this is so me and my boyfriend it's scary. we love each other to death, we have amazing chemistry and most of the time we're just two cuddly lovey-doveys (we've had complaints from our friends that we're too sugary). and then disaster strikes. about once in a month or two we both have bad days and there it goes. and it's exactly the way you said it.

    however, i believe anger - if not let out - grows bigger and bigger. you keep it in and it turns into a timebomb and the longer you keep it in the nastier it is when it gets out. i, as a human, need moments when i'm out of control so that i can control myself better the rest of the time.

    for us, we scream, we shout, he even broke a plate at two (and, no, they were not heading towards me :p) a couple of times, but then it all goes back to normal. and an hour later we're the same lovey-doveys we were before.

    we have to accept our angry side. otherwise it will end up controlling us.

  2. Anonymous4:05 AM

    I'm guilty of losing my temper once in a while. But after venting in anger, I always find myself feeling burdened with a heavy heart. I always regret bursting in anger. Careless words can cause emotional pain. I always regret things in the end. My husband is very patient and understanding. He seems to know how to pacify me when I'm angry. He actually helps me avoid emotional outbursts by talking to me in a soothing voice. I realized it helps to talk about it. Talking somehow eases the burden. I also learned that counting one to ten can sometimes do the trick. :) Although I admit I still succumb to anger, I have learned to control it and not to let it get the best of me. I'm thankful for a loving and understanding husband.


  3. arguing is beautiful,only you should see that the ego doesnt show itself up frquently. i used to argue,a lot with my friend and it alwayz brought us closer at the end. i guess its knowing that love and opinion are two different things thats important

  4. people are not taught how to resolve conflicts...and i figure it's the reason most people get divorced...they act passive-aggressive or argue all the time...

    me, i'm passive/aggressive...

    but i've learned to speak out - say my peace and then let it go...

    but that walking away when you are mad is so very important...i think people need to make aggreements with each other BEFORE they argue..set ground rules...and make it ok to say "i need a break, let's come back to this in an hour"

  5. I enjoy reading your sound, sensible articles, Andrew. And you’re funny too! I just about spewed my coffee when I read this on your sidebar: “My wife says the letters after my name stand for Propeller Head.”

    LOL! :-D

  6. Great advice. My husband says I store events in my brain and them when we fight, I pull out something insensitive he said three years ago.

    It ain't easy,

  7. A few tidbits from my corner learned over the years...

    1. Use "I" statements when addressing how you feel about a comment or situation. The "You" phrases usually only initiate a defensive reflex.

    2. Try to understand what the other person has said by paraphrasing what they said and reflecting it back to them with a question if that is what they meant? Their response will either provide additional information needed, or it will give them the opportunity to hear how you understood their action or comment - perhaps giving them the tools to acknowledge that it may have been a thoughtless comment or action.

    3. Breathe and Breathe again and if something is really upsetting, take time to think about what was said, what was done, how you may have contributed to the problem. Think of possible solutions that you could be satisfied with, so if asked, you have shown that you have thought about it.

    4. Involve the other person in brainstorming any solution and acknowledge their suggestions as contributions, even if their suggestion is not something you would consider. Compromise when possible so that there are no extreme "left" or "right" positions, either of which is usually a lose/lose situation because whomever "won" doesn't have the support of the other party and whomever "lost" didn't feel like they had a voice.

    5. Be situation or comment specific, leave the past in the past.

    6. Confirm the solution agreed upon and how it will be practice and try to end on a positive note - perhaps thanking them for discussing the issue with you and coming to the solution together.

  8. I have a few stupid small arguments with my husband every now and then and I always end up forgetting what my complaint was.

    I got all John Grey's tapes for christmas once and I loved them.