Stop the Arguing: How to End an Argument
by Kathy Batesel
In Your Relationship
How many topics automatically become disagreements with your spouse or partner?
Why It's Critical to Curb the Fights
We all know that every couple argues. We've also been fed the idea that relationships take hard work. Perhaps we believe that power struggles are commonplace and necessary for relationships to blossom. Nonetheless, we also know that ongoing arguments can be detrimental and lead to breakups and divorces.
If you're in a conflicted relationship, take hope. It is possible to put the brakes on fighting. This feisty former feminist is about to tell you how, so keep reading!
In Your Relationship
When you have disagreements over recurring issues, how severe are they?
Compatibility and Conflict
Experts say that even the happiest of couples have, on average, six or seven topics that they'll never agree upon. Financial issues, child discipline, home responsibilities... there are dozens of potential conflicts in every couple's average day, and it's hardly surprising. Two people who were raised with a unique set of values and beliefs came together in love, and their differing attitudes came along for the ride.
Yet couples may respond differently to disagreements, and their responses can drive them apart or help them bond. To paraphrase John Gottman, who may be the world's foremost expert on relationships, two aspects of problem-solving affect relational happiness: cooperation and engagement.
Cooperation: a couple's ability to retain respect and goodwill for each other
Engagement: how active a couple in about addressing issues that arise
A volatile couple may bicker frequently and report high relationship satisfaction. An avoidant couple might feel very comfortable with ignoring problems and letting time work its magic. However, when two individuals have different styles of addressing issues, it can wreak havoc on their love by introducing hostility or removing emotional intimacy, as seen in withdrawn relationships.
How we solve problems is one of the five pillars of compatibility - emotional compatibility. It may be overlooked when love is new and exciting, but becomes important when personality and value differences become evident.
Mismatched Engagement Levels?
If you normally withdraw from your high-engagement partner, try saying, "I see this is important to you. You're important to me. If I agree to sit down, can we limit our discussion to twenty minutes?"
If you normally prefer directness, while your partner withdraws, try "I know you like your space. If we table this now, can you agree to sit down for twenty minutes tomorrow?"
In Your Relationship
Which of these two areas causes the biggest obstacles to resolving conflict?
Two Ways to Stifle the Strife
There are two basic ways to change the dynamics that lead to frequent arguing and power struggles. If just one of the individuals does either of these things, the relationship will change:
- Improve cooperation
- Adjust engagement level
Sounds simple, doesn't it? It sort of is, except when you're in the middle of a heated argument!
It's tough to cooperate with someone who's acting unpleasant. We may find our own level of engagement is higher or lower than usual purely because of the way our partner's acting. Instead of resorting to our inner selves the way we feel comfortable with, we discover ourselves in a screaming match. Or perhaps we normally like to handle problems directly, but resort to a stony silence because we feel hopeless.
To make matters worse, we may realize that the current argument isn't the "real" issue, and the argument escalates. We're now arguing over the triggering event, plus the reason it occurred.
Short-circuiting the process can prevent these distractions and help a couple get back to the cooperative intimacy that both individuals crave.
Disrupt Argument Escalation with Two Easy Steps
The "real" issue lies deeper than the motivations behind the triggering event, but we can subconsciously get tangled into a process that looks like this....
Triggering Event: She spent $150 on clothing.
1. He has a thought about the event. "We can't afford to spend $150."
2. Then his beliefs kick in. "It's irresponsible to spend money when bills haven't been paid yet."
3. He has a response based on those thoughts and beliefs. Maybe our gent rolls his eyes and shakes his head in a judgmental way at his wife.
4. That response becomes a new triggering event and this cycle gets repeated, this time with the other person undergoing the process. It can go back and forth many times during a heated argument.
What used to be called RET, for "rational emotive therapy," described this process. (It's now lumped into the term cognitive behavioral therapy.) Many of my counseling clients found it helpful to understand that their own thoughts and beliefs triggered much of the unhappiness in their lives.
I often used an example to illustrate these principles. "If your acquaintance Joe walks up and punches you in the arm, your initial thought lays the foundation for what's to come. If you think he's joking, you might feel accepted and happy, but if you think he's trying to start a fight with you, you'll have different beliefs and actions kick in." Nonetheless, because they found that their thoughts, beliefs, and reaction were nearly instantaneous, they needed a way to control them before problems arose.
The two things that can short circuit the destructive cycle that takes place during power struggles are:
1. Reframing thoughts
2. Reprioritizing beliefs
Because neither of these things can happen as automatically as our subconscious can generate those initial thoughts and beliefs, we have to gain control of the process.
"Deadly Habits" Destroy Relationship Happiness
What Are YOUR Deadly Habits?
- Manipulating with Rewards/Bribes
Self-Control: Disrupting Harmful Thoughts and Beliefs
Avoidance may be an attempt to exert self-control, but it can leave issues unresolved. People who like to tackle things head-on can hardly be called avoidant, but they frequently lack enough self-control to avoid blame and criticism, which are the harmful elements of argument.
Counselors have long recommended taking "time outs" from arguments, but they rarely educate their clients on how to use the reprieve constructively to reframe or reprioritize the issues. Much of what they teach, in fact, can make matters worse. For instance, they may advise patients to do these things, and the patients' efforts result in the situation I described above - coming back with more issues to argue about!
Time outs are a couple's best friend if they're used well, and it's actually not difficult to use them well.
As soon as it becomes clear that your partner has a different agenda than you do, acknowledge this and excuse yourself from the discussion for at least ten minutes. It may take a couple of hours or even days to complete the simple process you'll need to undertake, but respectfully let your partner know that you haven't stopped thinking about what is going on and will talk to them as soon as you're able.
During your time out, consider these questions:
- What is more important to me, getting my way on this issue, or having a good relationship with my partner?
- Which of these things do I believe my partner values more?
- What is the best course of action to take based on these answers?
- How can I pursue that course of action without blame or criticism?
We cannot change another person. Their thoughts, beliefs, and actions are entirely under their control. Worse, some people are manipulative and willing to harm others to further their own agendas. When this is the case, the only option that consistently works is to stop engaging with them. That may mean leaving a relationship.
More commonly, our partners are acting and thinking the way they do because it's the only response they know how to do. Those thoughts and behaviors might stem from insecurities or character flaws, but they don't necessarily make our loved one a bad person.
Also, it's not "wrong" to acknowledge if an issue means more than the relationship! For instance, I value my independence a great deal. I sometimes give up a degree of freedom because of my relationship, but it's a sacrifice I am happy to make because I value the relationship more than the small amount of autonomy I surrender. However, if I had to give up too much freedom, I might balk. At that moment, I may value my freedom more than the relationship. When I return to the topic of conflict, I do so with an awareness that I'm willing to fight for my freedom, but that I may damage the relationship in doing so.
When many incompatibilities exist in a relationship, it's likely that these differences will become more important over time, and we allow the self to become more important than the relationship. This can be healthy even if it means a relationship ends.
In the same way, valuing the relationship more than the self is only healthy as long as the individuals in it aren't losing self-esteem, experiencing chronic unhappiness, or developing emotional baggage because of their love.
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By implementing time outs and figuring out the answers to these questions, it is possible to stop fighting in its tracks. With an unwilling partner, these steps provide a helpful reality check that can let you know that your partner doesn't value you or the relationship enough. Do you want to keep beating a dead horse? Only you can decide the answer to that one!
With a partner who treasures you and the relationship, it's a great way to remind each other of what is truly important - cooperation and happiness.