Quarrels occur from time to time in anyone who is married or in a committed, intimate relationship. For some couples, these times are few, while for others, they are frequent. For many couples, the arguments are frustrating, anxiety-provoking, and, if really serious, can lead to the end of the relationship. Having worked with couples for years and being aware of my thirty-eight-year marriage, I have made some observations about arguments and what should and should not occur.
I have observed thousands of times in working among married and intimate couples that where an argument rarely begins is where it ends. For example, recently, a married couple began arguing with one another during their session. Despite my best efforts at getting them to see what was happening, they drifted from the actual problem they disagreed with to problems and debates they had earlier and earlier in their relationship. As the heat in the room ramped up, each expressed hurt and despair about the slings and arrows being hurled by the other. The trouble was that those slings and arrows had no relevance to the issues in the present moment.
During the next session, when things had calmed quite a lot, I pointed out that what they argued and felt hurt about had little to do with the problem they entered the room with.
This is a frequent occurrence in most marriages and therefore reveals nothing about the identity of this couple. Why do couples, when arguing, drift further from the central issue?
Many arguments that begin with a legitimate complaint spiral downward because no one will admit to making a mistake. Why can’t anyone admit to an error? Making such an admission feels like a humiliation or surrender to one or both spouses. So, they continue to argue with increased vigor, because each is now competing to win a debate or a court trial with each opposing attorney. To score more points, each goes further into the past, digging up ancient and irrelevant complaints, obscure occurrences, and petty differences. As frustration mounts, so does the anger until they stop arguing out of sheer exhaustion or pure frustration. The result is nothing more or less than alienation.
Why would a couple seek counseling when they rarely, if ever, quarrel? The answer is that they do not quarrel because one of them walks out of the room the minute a hot issue is raised. This is not a role that shifts but are perpetrated by one spouse repeatedly, driving the other mate to feel utterly frustrated. Most often, I have heard this complaint from women about their husbands. These men refuse to fight, respond to a question, or resolve an issue. The more she gets angry, the more silent he becomes. It is just not possible to argue with someone who refuses to argue. Of course, he is saving up all kinds of grievances that he may or may not be aware of against her.
The problem with this husband is that one day he explodes into uncontrollable anger over some minor issue. With small annoyances mounting for months or years, these men reach a “boiling point” where they explode in a way that shocks and surprises even themselves. After this cathartic experience, this man then returns to his quiet tranquility once again, leaving his wife completely confused and, of course, angry.
There are those people who place the blame constantly on each other. Let us take a fictional example of this blaming scenario:
The couple has three children, all elementary school age. One has been diagnosed with a learning disability, and the youngest sibling may have a similar problem. Only the eldest child is free of learning problems and is doing well. The father ignores the children’s learning problems and blames his wife for the children doing poorly in school. He complains she does not help them with their homework and places all blame on her when report card grades are poor. He ignores the fact that she does help them with homework. Still, he does not because he is busy smoking marijuana in another room after coming home from work and having dinner.
In fact, this man blames his wife for the messy house, the clean clothes, and the bills not being paid promptly. He ignores her work, takes the children to and from school, makes dinner, does the laundry, and cleans the house. She complains she needs help with some chores with three kids to look after, but he refuses to help. She sarcastically notes that helping might interfere with his marijuana smoking.
By the way, he blames his wife for the eldest child being overweight!
I could continue this way, but the point is made that these are not good ways to argue.
How to argue better:
1. Stay focused on disagreement and do not stray from that topic for any reason.
2. Refrain from using curse words, and do not hurl vile epitaphs at your mate.
3. Do not derail the issue by saying, “you are yelling.” Such a comment can take you down a side road.
4. Do not yell.
5. Instead of trying to “win” the argument, work on reaching a consensus.
6. If anyone has been drinking or using a drug, avoid the argument until everyone is rational.
7. Give one another permission to pause if the argument is becoming too angry and permission to go out for a walk to blow off some steam.
8. If you made a mistake, like being late, admit it and apologize. An honest admission harmed no one.
9. Avoid using all-inclusive but incendiary words such as “You never do this…” or, “You always…” or “You….”
10. Bite your tongue before you say that really mean and angry thing when you are angry. Most people later regret what they said in the heat of the moment.
11. Do not use the silent treatment.
12. Never, under any circumstances, become violent.
People argue, and this is a necessary part of relating intimately. The idea is to fight in healthy ways. Fighting in healthy ways means not working to devastate or emotionally wipe out your partner. Remember, this is the person you love. A healthy quarrel can bring couples closer together.
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