I often hear couples say, "We argue all the time." But after listening to what’s going on, I almost always end up pointing out that what they’re doing isn’t arguing: it’s fighting. They never seem to know the difference or why one is better (or worse) than the other. But knowing the difference can help create harmony and understanding instead of bitterness and confusion. So where are we supposed to learn these skills? From the perfect families we all grew up with? Well, even if one partner grew up in a home where harmony and productive communication prevailed, it’s unlikely the other did too.
So what is the difference between arguing and fighting and what is it that most of us actually do? During challenging times couples and families sometimes engage in trading insults, taking nasty swipes at each other or expressing mean sentiments. That’s not arguing: it’s fighting. And fighting is simply destructive. Arguing, on the other hand, can be very productive and it is the honest, effective expression of opposing ideas and feelings. Effective and productive arguing usually evolves from an atmosphere of openness, care and understanding even if there is anger and disagreement. Even though angry or unpleasant feelings may get expressed, honest respectful and effective arguing will almost always result in more peaceful, productive resolutions than fighting will. But because so many people grew up experiencing the more common act of fighting, they end up avoiding conflicts altogether. That’s not good either. There will always be conflicts and differences to negotiate in life. Changing our behaviors and setting the stage for our children to have honest and meaningful interactions is easier than you might think.
Most people seem to engage in a sort of muddy blend of fighting and arguing with an unproductive angry standoff or resentful “giving in” being the ultimate outcome. But with some basic rules, strategies and patience, anyone can turn a potentially destructive fight into a productive argument which can result in deeper understanding and the resolution of conflict. So here are a few ideas to help get away from your old destructive habits and begin interacting more productively and honestly. First of all, what is your goal when there’s an angry disagreement? To put others down, make stinging insults or show them you’re smarter than they are? Hopefully not. Shouldn’t the goals be to express your ideas and feelings clearly, hear the other’s feelings and points of view and then end up with a clearer understanding and a result everyone can accept? Having an honest and productive interaction nurtures care, love and strengthens your bonds. And if there are kids involved, it teaches them important lessons about how to resolve conflicts, too.
It’s rare for everyone to agree all the time so we need rules to make disagreeing more acceptable. Start off by stating what your concern is and offer or ask for a possible solution or compromise. Don’t just focus on the problem though. Sure, rule one is to honestly identify and express your concern. No one can find a solution if they don’t know what the problem is. So once you understand the problem, talk about how each of you sees it and then switch to a more solution-focused mode. Those who stay focused on the problem are stuck there – don’t let that happen. For instance, it’s nighttime and you think the garbage needs to go out. Your partner or child feels it can be taken out in the morning on their way out the door and they don’t want to do it now. All of a sudden you’re being called a bossy control freak. You say they’re a lazy slob and tempers flare. But before you react to any of that, slow down and talk about why you think the way you do – “argue” your case. For example, if you’re concerned that it smells, might attract bugs and would only mean a few minutes to take care of it, say so. It’s much more likely you’ll be heard this way. And instead of letting someone angrily storm off or submissively concede, ask if they can see your point, why they disagree and if they have another solution. Maybe they’ll have some good thoughts like they’re already in their PJs and you’re not – good point. So, be reasonable. Of course if it’s someone’s regular chore, the honest discussion might need to be expanded and explored more deeply. But the point is you're talking, not fighting.
Many times people have stored up their gripes for years. And because they’ve never confronted old issues and feelings, they get combined with current ones. So that brings up two more rules: focus on one problem at a time and don’t dredge up the past. Sure, if there’s a pattern and that’s part of the problem, state your case and stay focused on the problem until it’s identified, then move on to finding solutions together. The trust and respect that’s created by everyone listening and talking about their feelings, their points of view and working to find reasonable solutions lasts a lifetime. So instead of creating an endless loop of verbal snipes and angry retaliation, start talking, listen and find peaceful solutions together.
There are other easy rules for arguing and if everyone knows them and uses them, life at home can be much more peaceful and productive. For instance, there’s no room for name calling in a good argument. That’s just a way to shut someone down. Your point will never be heard that way. Like the scenario above, calling someone an inconsiderate, lazy slob will just get them angry and put them on the defensive and maybe even the offensive. Your goal should be to get your point across while being respectful and making good sense. "I can understand you’re tired and you think taking the garbage out in the morning when you leave for work saves a trip, but I have a hard time with the smells from it and it’s one of your chores. Could you please take it out?" If the response you get is sarcasm or an insult like, “oh, I didn’t know your senses were so delicate,” then you need to calmly and honestly say you deserve more consideration and respect and ask why they disagree. While we don’t always agree, being respectful is a must. So even if your spouse or child says it doesn’t bother them, acknowledge your differences but calmly ask that your feelings be respected. “Please, I know it doesn’t bother you but it would really mean a lot to me if you did it.” If you’re ignored, ridiculed or an angry insulting swipe is the response, there might other underlying issues fueling their hostility. That’s when maybe it’s time to talk with a marriage counselor or family therapist. A therapist can help uncover those other issues, sort them out, teach you more productive communication skills and help you come to better resolutions.
Other rules include not dragging other family members into the argument: "You’re a slob just like your father!" That only inflames a situation and starts a whole new fight. Also, stay in the present. Resist the temptation to drag old history into it like, "Sure, you’ll take out the garbage just like you cleaned up the garage last summer. You kept putting it off and it never got done." If cleaning out the garage is a valid topic, then it needs its own discussion. It shouldn’t be thrown onto a heap of other complaints. No one responds very well to that and you simply can’t solve all your problems at once. So there’s another rule - argue one issue at a time. Offer to discuss the garage but settle the current issue first.
Flawed communication styles are common and they’re easier to avoid than you think. If someone has a concern, then it’s fair to discuss it. Responding with, "that’s ridiculous," or, "I don’t want to talk about it," is simply not fair or productive. If the point is important enough for someone you care about to raise it, then it’s important enough to hear them out. If you really don’t have time or aren’t in the mood, then you can put it off in a fair way and with a specific time. If you say, “I don’t want to talk about it now,” it sounds like you’re saying, “forget it – I don’t care.” That doesn’t work. But saying, “I’ve had a really hard day, would it be okay if we talk about that after dinner” sends the message that you care but feel you aren’t going to do well with the topic that minute. Setting a specific time lets others know their feelings are important. And don’t we all want our loved ones to feel important and to know that we care about them?
Finally, think about arguing in terms of the way lawyers argue their case. They have their facts, points of view and reasoning thought out. They present their ideas clearly and then listen to the responses. It’s a back and forth, give and take situation typically done with respect and understanding. With the whole family engaged in respectful, back and forth intelligent interaction, everyone will benefit. I’ve listed some basic “Conflict Resolution Rules” below that will make your interactions more productive. If things seem too out of hand, talking with a therapist trained in effective communication skills – even just once or twice – can have a wonderfully positive impact. You can look for a therapist in your area here: www.psychologytoday.com . Good luck and never stop talking and listening with those you care about. Copyright © 2019 Joshua Kates, LCSW marriage counseling.