The art of arguing, by Elaine Stahl, LPC-I

As I sit down to write about healthy relationships, my husband of 14 years and I have been having an ongoing argument for a few days. So we’ve been polite with each other, if a little quiet. We hug and kiss, letting each other know we love the other, but there is a quiet space between us. Sooner or later, we will talk again. About money and finances…the subject of our recent heated discussion. This waiting isn’t tense or strained, usually. It’s simply….giving each of us time to gather our thoughts, wade through emotions, sort out priorities. We do this semi-regularly…we argue, or one of us gets grumpy and retreats into silence for a day or two. The other will attempt to cheer up, to talk or reconnect…failing this, space and time is granted.
Often, I will hear people describe healthy relationships as one where each person is always madly in love with the other. This is an extremely simplistic understanding of the truth. In a long-term healthy relationship, that love and trust is nurtured daily. Every interaction we have is based on a loving acceptance and unconditional positive regard for the other. Even when we argue. In fact, during these times, keeping our love and commitment in mind is most important.
But that doesn’t mean we always feel “in love,” or happy. It doesn’t even mean we always like the other person.  It is true that people change and (hopefully) mature over time. When two people are in a long term relationship, two separate people are changing, growing, and maturing. The process of change includes acknowledging the parts of us that are worthy of change. This means our partners will also come into contact with the dark, sometimes unacknowledged, parts of us that are worthy of change. As in the above example, my husband and I recently had an argument over finances. That is the topic…but the deeper issue underlying that was us acknowledging to ourselves and each other that, as a couple, we need to develop more discipline with our budget. We had to acknowledge that each of us prefer immediate gratification over having money left in the back at the end of the month. This is our shadow selves, and in that moment, we clearly saw those shadows in the other.
Being in a long-term relationship without arguing is NOT a marker of a healthy relationship. It’s quite the opposite. If there is no conflict in the relationship sometimes, then either both people are stagnant in their personal growth, or one person is compromising too much of their own inner self…and will eventually become resentful.
The key is to be able to negotiate conflict in a respectful, loving, and productive way. Over the years, my husband and I have developed this into a fine art. These are our guidelines:
1.       First and most important…keep in mind that the goal of a negotiation is to find a solution that is helpful and accepted by both parties. THE GOAL IS NOT TO PROVE YOUR POSITION OR VIEWPOINT THE RIGHT ONE. Even if it is.
2.       Never call the other person names, or use foul language during a serious argument. If you love somebody, you don’t cut the person down, or try to hurt them with words.
3.       Do not interrupt your partner. The biggest barrier to resolving an issue is usually when the other person does not feel heard, acknowledged, or accepted. LISTEN to your partner; don’t wait for them to finish talking so you can say what you already planned to say.
4.       Here’s where I go all counselor on you, reader. Learn communication skills. The most important ones include using “I statements.” For example, “I felt ignored the other day when you didn’t return my calls, so that’s why I reacted as I did.” That’s much better than screaming, “Why can’t you ever pick up your phone when I call you?!?!?!” See what I’m getting at? The first statement lowers the person’s defensive response.
Second, use reflective statements to be sure you are actually understanding what your partner is trying to say. For heterosexual couples especially, there is truth to the statement that men and women process information differently. This means that you could be talking about the same incident, but have radically different concepts about what is important about that incident. For example, a reflective statement to the above scenario would be something like, “ I hear you say that you felt ignored when I didn’t return your calls.”
An even better and more productive response is, “I hear you say that you felt ignored when I didn’t return your calls. I was at a work meeting, so I am sorry I didn’t call you back. Have you been feeling ignored or neglected by me at other times though? I ask because it seems that my not returning your call the other day would not have been such a big deal if you felt secure overall.”
Now you’ve just made the transition from arguing about a topic, to discussing the real underlying issues.
5.       After the discussion, it very important to follow up with hugs and assurances of love. This step is essential to begin the healing process and getting back to normal. Many times, you may not feel like hugging or saying, “I love you,” because you are still emotional or angry. That’s ok. Do it anyway. Then give each other guilt-free space and time to recover.
There is an old saying about marriage…”Don’t go to bed angry.”  I don’t know who came up with this, but it’s ridiculous. Sometimes, going to bed miffed and angry is the best thing…it gives you time and space to process through the argument. In the morning, or maybe even after work the next day, both of you will be calm enough to reach an agreement and find your peace.
HOWEVER….when I recommend giving each other space, I am not giving permission for one partner to retreat passively and avoid discussing unresolved issues. That is poison to a relationship. You keep talking, giving space, and talking again, until both people are satisfied that they have been heard and understood. It’s a process.
And you know you have been successful when you wake up in the morning, look at your partner, and are filled with gladness that he or she is in this life journey with you.

4 thoughts on “The art of arguing, by Elaine Stahl, LPC-I

  1. This post is well done! It gives a very experienced and “mature” look at what goes into a lasting union. Certainly two people change as time goes on, but the commitment to each other does not. It is unconditional as you say. We all need to find more ways to work at staying together and growing within a relationship instead of just giving up and moving on…


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