What’s in an argument?
“Don't raise your voice, improve your argument." – Desmond Tutu
Frequent arguments tend to be the main reason why couples seek the support of counselling or therapy. Invariably these arguments follow a well-worn path that seems to be effective at driving further distance between the couple but hopeless at resolving the matter at hand.
Occasionally arguments can be effective in clearing the air and getting feelings heard but this requires both parties to actually listen to each other and seek to understand. Too often arguments touch on past slights and disagreements with couples resorting to airing favoured injustices from the past. Along the way the goal appears to change from resolution to point-scoring where the argument becomes a power struggle as opposed to a search for enlightenment. This makes resolution all the more difficult, as it takes someone to share their vulnerability to the unpleasantness of the argument and find the strength to say sorry.
So, how can a couple go about making changes to enable arguments to become more productive, or perhaps avoid an argument altogether? The following tips can help you change your current argument dynamic:
i) Avoid “totalising” phrases which are almost never accurate. “You never” or “you always” statements immediately put your partner on the defensive, and because it is highly unlikely that they never or always do anything (other than breathe), it creates a sense of injustice which can provoke hurtful comments in retaliation.
ii) Keep the argument focused on the here and now. Bringing up the past rarely makes things better, and only succeeds in re-opening old wounds for both of you. If the past is still an issue for you as a couple/family then this may need to be addressed, but lobbing it into every argument rarely helps resolve either the current or past conflict.
iii) Arguments are about emotion fuelled by meaning. Seeking to understand the emotion behind the event which sparks an argument can help ensure you are talking about feelings and emotions rather than facts or opinions. This will avoid wasting time on arguing at cross purposes.
iv) Listen. This might seem an obvious tip, but it is surprising just how difficult we can find listening when we are in an emotional state. If you both find this difficult, it may be helpful to have an object (a cushion is good) to hand - whoever is holding the object can speak uninterrupted. Once they have finished they hand the object to their partner to allow them to speak uninterrupted. During this exercise try hard to concentrate on listening and avoid rehearsing your response in your head.
Following through on these tips should help improve your communication, but if arguments continue you may need external support from a relationship therapist to help you work through the challenges you face.
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About Eugene Gallagher
Eugene Gallagher is a relationship therapist and works with individuals, couples and families to resolve relationship based issues. Eugene has an MA in Relationship Therapy and is a member of the BACP.