Arguments are such a common feature of family and relationships, we take them for granted. But they accomplish little, and usually create more problems than they solve. When arguments escalate and squeeze the joy out of life, we wish we could find another way.
It’s hard to stop arguments, or even reduce their destructive severity, when most of the time we barely understand what it is that keeps our arguments going in the first place. Here are some perspectives that can help explain what keeps us fighting and suggestions on how to find harmony in its place.
Hiding our real needs behind an angry attack
In relationships or family, we expect others to fulfill our emotional needs. When those needs are not met, we feel frustrated. Ideally, we talk to each other, explain our needs and frustrations, and negotiate for improved results. However, few of us feel free to clearly express our needs. Instead, when we want more affection, or wish our partner would share more of the chores, we express our frustration indirectly, complaining in an area we feel safer. For example, we feel tired, but instead of asking for comforting, we lash out with a complaint. When we attack the other person, they escalate by defending themselves and counterattacking. Because our discussion is about a topic completely unrelated to our honest emotional need, our conversations can never lead closer to the solution. The arguments seem empty and endless because they are missing the point
The solution to such arguments is to directly address the emotional needs that are causing the frustration. We need to enlist our partner or family member as our ally. Since we depend on each other for our emotional environment, we should be able to find common ground to understand each other and negotiate to get the behavior we want, without resorting to frustrating, fruitless indirect arguing.
Listen with Empathy
Many arguments can be reduced in severity or avoided altogether by responding to the other person’s feelings rather than the facts of the case they build up against us. When someone addresses us with some provocative statement, we can sometimes avoid an argument by understanding the frustration that is driving their behavior. Instead of listening to the details of the complaint, we best communicate by listening carefully to the feelings underneath. Is the other person tired, or edgy? What is it they’re really saying? All of us want to be seen and heard and loved. When we see each other as vulnerable human beings, our feelings open up to their situation.
When we understand the other person’s needs, we are less likely to be defensive, and more likely to listen carefully, empathize and respond in turn by communicating our own needs in the situation.
When our childhood environment was hurtful, we had to tuck away the pain and carry on. Even though we’ve tried to forget the anger or abandonment, we associate pain and anger with our family life. Our minds have an uncanny knack for holding on to the familiar. These memories well up inside us when we are most vulnerable. We may react to the pain of our inner child by lashing out at those we love.
To heal from these patterns that started in childhood, we need to nurture our child within. When we explore the pain of our child within, we need the emotional support and guidance offered by counseling.
Soothing the fight-or-flight instinct
Arguing stirs up our fight-or-flight response. Once biological arousal takes over we start to feel the effects of nature’s mechanism that prepares us for aggressive action. To understand our patterns of arguing, we need to learn about fight-or-flight arousal.
Once we recognize the signs that we are in an aroused state, such as pounding heart and increased muscle tone, we may realize how often even trivial arguments are triggering full-blown biological responses. An argument about a TV clicker can seem to our mammalian brain as threatening as a lion leaping towards our throat. To learn how to cope with such angry responses we need to get our body under control. Rather than give in to our fight-or-flight arousal, we can learn to soothe our biological intensity with methods such as deep breathing, counting to ten, going for a walk, and repeating positive, calming affirmations. By lowering our state of biological arousal we can respond to pressure more appropriately and more constructively, working towards resolutions that benefit us and the people around us.
Rigidity, Flexibility and power
How often and how intensely we argue depends on how rigid we are about our ideas. The more rigid we are, the more frustration and anxiety we’ll have when someone presents an idea that is different than our own. We feel defensive about our ideas, and willing to argue to defend our position.
Some of us roll fluidly with the ideas and points of view of others. If we are loose, and flexible, and are not so uptight about defending ourselves, we can improve harmony.
While these skills are built deep into our habits and belief systems, personal growth may take place along remarkable lines when we are willing to make the effort. If we have children in our care, we may also try to teach them strategies for harmony.
Repair attempts, Accusations, and other strategy choices
Once an argument is under way, our choices of words and strategies may determine which way things go. Insults and accusations are sure to put the other person on the defensive and escalate the argument to the point where no one can win. When we choose softer words, share our feelings, and verbally acknowledge that we understand the other person’s point of view, we produce less heat and more light on the situation, increase our chances for a negotiated settlement and assure a smoother landing after the argument.
Sometimes our arguments have a life of their own, and we wish we knew how to deescalate. In wartime, we signal surrender by waving a white flag. During arguments we can send each other white flags, or what John Gottman calls “repair attempts” to indicate we really would rather not be arguing. We may find our argument quickly deescalating when we send such signals, and are sensitive to the signals of the other person.
win-win versus win-lose.
When we seek to find a harmonious resolution to our disagreements, it helps to remember that both parties to an argument are tied together. If we conquer the other through our superior power, have we really won anything? A mentality where one wins and the other loses is called a win-lose approach. When one of us loses both people feel worse.
Our negotiations become far more productive when we think in terms of win-win. This means that instead of trying to put the other person down, we’re committed to giving all parties the satisfaction of gaining something from the argument. Since both parties want something from the other, there ought to be plenty of room for negotiating a productive peaceful settlement that contains benefits for everyone. When we are open to a win-win resolution, we are more likely to focus on listening to the other person, and seeking resolution, rather than defending and attacking.
Couples often argue over who controls decisions. When we feel that the other person is taking too much control, we may feel threatened and defensive. When we repeatedly argue, we need to step back and find areas in our lives that chronically provoke disagreements. As John Gottman puts it, “solve the solvable problems.” By becoming more conscious of the rules of the household, and consciously deciding to improve our decision making processes, we learn how to deal with issues about money, house chores, in-laws, travel decisions, and even the TV clicker. Both partners benefit by the improved harmony created when we negotiate solutions to chronic disagreements.
Parent/Teenager Arguments are a special case
Because teenagers are at a stage in life when they are seeking their own independence, they are unwilling to go along with our program. And yet, as parents, we still feel responsible for them, and want them to do the right things to prepare for their future, and to live harmoniously with us today. As we continue to guide them, and they continue to resist, we may find ourselves in a continuous battle. Simply raising our voice to new heights is probably not going to be a long term solution or improve harmony. Chronic arguments with teenagers should be looked at as normal, and as areas of personal growth for parents who may benefit from searching for new strategies to deal with their own anger.
Many habits of mind contribute to chronic arguing. While arguing is not technically an addiction, it may be just as hard to stop. When we repeatedly argue despite our best efforts we may need to acknowledge that our habit is out of control. The healing journey of a Twelve Step program may help us explore the emptiness that we are trying to fill, and work on building bridges of caring and responsibility to people. When our responsibility to them becomes more compelling than our reasons to argue, we’ll rediscover a deeper, more compassionate relationship to others that will make it unnecessary to argue.
See also: Anger, Assertiveness, Blame, Child within, Cognitive therapy, Couples counseling, Couples Therapy (Imago), Fight or Flight, Self esteem, Soothing
Seven principles for making marriage work by John M. Gottman, Ph.D. and Nan Silver
When Anger Hurts, Quieting the Storm Within by Matthew Mckay, Peter D. Rogers and Judith McKay
Anger, How to Live With and Without It by Albert Ellis
The Anger Workbook by Lorraine Bilodeau