I hate arguing. I am a conciliator. I am hypersensitive, thin-skinned and insecure. I take things personally.
I don’t even like to be in the vicinity of an argument, whether it’s a couple I don’t know in the grocery checkout or a couple I do know at a dinner party.
(Note: I’m not like this because I can’t argue. I used to be a lawyer. But in legal practice the arguments are structured, and unless you are actually in an episode of “The Good Wife” there are few zingers or ad hominem attacks).
The worst kind of arguing goes on in intimate, personal relationships. The stakes seem high, whether they are or not. It feels surreal when an intimate partner becomes The Enemy, both people turning into the worst version of themselves.
And couples who say they “never fight?” I don’t believe it. Either it’s a lie or someone is getting Xanax in his extra-hoppy IPA.
I tend to be rational and logical until I burst into tears and say “how can you be mad at me when I’m such a good person, I help the downtrodden and recycle and make suet cakes for the birds?” Or I make my case, let my husband make about half of his and say “I don’t want to talk about it anymore” before retreating into passive-aggressive silence.
These non-tactics always fail, in case you were wondering
I’ve learned some things that make a fight bearable, and make it possible to move forward without permanent damage. I did not invent any of them, nor can I say that I am always able to practice them in the heat of battle. But I try.
All couples have “stuff,” and if you are committed to your partner, and want to be together it’s really best to live as loving allies rather than bitter enemies. Which seems like a total “duh” until we look at some of the things we actually do when anger and frustration make us desperate, un-loving and unkind.
“Before you speak, think—is it necessary? Is it true? Is it kind? Will it hurt anyone? Will it improve on the silence?”
~ Sri Sathya Sai Baba
This is the best guide possible for all human interaction. It is quite possibly true and necessary to tell your partner that leaving a pile of dirty dishes in the sink at night makes you really depressed and angry in the morning. If this information is relayed in a context of love and honesty, it is probably not unkind of hurtful. On the other hand, “you are a total slob” crosses the kindness line and is probably not true.
This rule also prevents direct hits unrelated to the conversation at hand. “You always make a mess,” “you never clean anything around here,” “you’re just like your dad/my ex/Jeffrey Dahmer.”
It may slow you down and make you think before you speak…and that’s really just fine.
Be present and inhabit your body.
When I argue, I feel hot (I actually flush), and my muscles tighten. My shoulders creep up towards my ears and my neck and jaw clench. Fight-or-flight is real, especially when you’re actually fighting.
You are probably not going to stop mid-conflict and drop onto your meditation cushion but you can be aware of sensations in your body, and where it is clenched and tight. Check your shoulders and drop them, check your breathing and make it deeper and slower, feel the tight knot in your stomach and acknowledge that it comes from fear.
If tears come, let them come without shame. If you feel that you literally can’t breathe, ask for a break to calm yourself. Don’t let a tense situation drive a wedge between your mind and your body, leaving you with shallow breaths, a racing heart and escalating rage and panic.
Ask yourself what your goal is and re-frame the dialogue to get there.
Many arguments begin as conversations about a legitimate issue. Should your mother-in-law move in? Should the kids keep their holiday money or put it in the bank?
Soon, your buttons are pushed. You don’t want anyone else in your house but that sounds mean, so you swing wide: “you said were going to have all this time together when the kids got older and now you want your mother here all the time?!”
Your partner feels guilty about his aging mother (who calls him every day) and he doesn’t really want her to live with you any more than you do. He’s been dreading this conversation. He fires back: “you never liked my mom!”
Be the bigger human. Set the tone by identifying the core issue and making sure both of you have a chance to voice your thoughts and opinions without attack or interruption. Often, a compromise is possible. Your mother in law can live in an apartment close to your house, and be included in lots of family activities.
If there’s a real gap, work at a solution. The kids can blow half of their holiday cash and bank the rest. You can cut dry cleaning from the budget but he has to take on at least half of the ironing. Revisit it in three months to see if it’s working.
Recognize the point where nothing productive is happening, and stop.
When you have each said the same thing more than twice, hoping that one more try will get it through his/her thick head, you should stop. Maybe you need to take a break and reconvene. Maybe you need to agree to disagree, if the issue doesn’t require an active solution (like “Trickle-down economics is/is not a total farce.”)
P.S. If you can’t resolve something and it’s eating you both alive, please consider getting some help from an objective professional. There’s no shame in knowing you need support.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: fish_boun on flickr