On the surface, it might seem that arguments are the biggest cause of relationship breakdown. They certainly contribute, but they are generally a harmful symptom, rather than the cause of breakdowns.
Given that arguments cause so much strife in relationships, if we could find a way of reducing them by even a small percentage, the savings to our societies would be unimaginable. But that’s just a dream.
Anyone can argue. There’s no talent in fighting. There’s no glory in ‘winning’ an argument, though you wouldn’t know it from the evidence we see around us.
- Arguments are driven by needs, and most arguments do nothing to address or remove what’s really driving them. Which means that even if you ‘win’ your particular argument the benefits – self-satisfaction, a glow of pride, being proved ‘right’ etc – are usually short-lived.
- 69% of all domestic disputes cannot be resolved (Gottman 2007), but that doesn’t stop many couples revisiting old ground and re-fighting battles that can’t be ‘won’ by either side. Gottman writes about marriage, but the same applies in workplace and other relationship feuds; they can often develop from unresolvable complaints.
- Arguments are fuelled by emotion, and emotions are unreliable guides in situations where clear-sightedness is required; they cloud judgement.
In any relationship that is important to you, it is a good idea to agree a ‘Geneva Convention’ with the other person(s) that lays down how you will handle disagreements when they arise (they will).
If you care passionately about communicating effectively then it is worth knowing how to stop and argument. There are 27 possibilities, here are three:
- Never let a dispute get ‘hot’ and out of control. Agree in your convention that you’ll walk away, making it clear that when you do you are NOT walking away from an important issue that needs discussing. You are walking away from the WAY it is being discussed. You’ll be back, at a more propitious time (when you are both less stressed, have more time, have had time to think it over, or whatever.
- Recognise that your own emotional needs will not be met by continuing the fight, even though it feels as if they will. Arguments are often driven by a need for validation and understanding and in a fight, neither side is capable of giving what is needed; they are too busy defending their own positions. Emotions won’t kill you, suck it up (as my friend Phil taught me to say), focus on calming yourself down.
- Never mind what YOU want. During an argument, focus on protecting the dignity of the person you are in conflict with. This counter-intuitive stance will give you something to focus on other than ‘me-me-me’.
It takes two to start an argument, and only one to stop it. Now you can.
Gottman, J., (2007), Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Bloomsbury, London.
Our Basic (and Limited) Conflict Styles, barrywinbolt.com