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How to Argue - Part I


The prevailing mythology about successful relationships seems to be that the relationships that survive are the ones where there is little or no arguing.  This is simply not true. Some relationships with the least amount of arguing are the ones that fail. Destructive arguing and no arguing both frequently lead to marital failure. Learning to argue effectively can save a relationship.

In fact, the greatest predictor of divorce, according to recent research, is the avoidance of conflict.  How can this be?  Certainly, verbal abuse, let alone physical abuse, is a major causative factor in divorce.  These represent major conflict.  To understand this, we need to take a look at some of the dynamics common in many marital relationships – but only a glance, since our discussion here is about how to argue.

Couples often become increasingly emotionally distanced from each other at the point where at least one begins to suspect the partner of not meaning well – of coming to believe the partner is taking care of his or her own needs to the undoing of the other. 

Since we are not taught the fourth “R” – relationships – in school, the idea of an encounter over these painful feelings often is threatening because we have not been taught successful communication skills. What needs to be said is held back and not said. Or, it is held back until tension becomes overwhelming and it is finally said in a way that alienates, rather than connects.  Either way, resentment builds.  Confrontation often only occurs when resentment or suspicions build to the point that encounters come about as questions, accusations and demands, with a lot of negative emotion.  

When emotional pain and alienation consistently come out of such encounters, a couple learns to relate in ways that avoid conflict – even though negative feelings continue to build beneath the surface until the next eruption.  Additionally, the act of suppressing any emotion, anger in this case, leads to a blockage of experiencing all emotions – including love. These volcanic communication patterns eventually take their toll.  The couple separates. 

Intuitive Truths (Listening to that still small voice) 

There are universal truths about relationships that we intuitively know –  you will recognize them as you read below – but we were never taught to put them together in a way that makes relationships work.  Even though we have an idea of how to drive a car as a child, we require training and in our society, we receive it.  In driving, we must learn to control and coordinate acceleration with steering while recognizing landmarks to get where we want to go. In the same way, we must learn how to control and coordinate the intensity of our emotions with our communication patterns while recognizing the signs in ourselves and others that communication is effective – that we are staying on our side while giving our partner their share of the road.

True intimacy, in our society, is typically equated with sex.  It’s not.  We intuitively know that sexual fulfillment requires sex with meaning and commitment – and true intimacy is required for this to develop.  Sex without intimacy is eating only cookie dough and thinking you know cookies. Intimacy is a bond on spiritual, mental and emotional levels that must be achieved as a prerequisite to fulfilling sexual intimacy.  This requires deep-level communication that is maintained consistently over time, such that intimacy continues to develop – not diminish, as is seen in so many modern relationships.

Since a couple consists of two people, with differences in backgrounds, perceptions, and perspectives, reality for each one will inevitably be different, yet equally real in the experience of each person.  These differences invariably result in the need to argue as a way of negotiating a shared path in life.  The challenge is in developing a way to argue, or negotiate a shared experience of reality, that maintains and enhances intimacy.

The word, argue, evolved from the Latin: argutare, frequentative of arguere – meaning to make clear. Actually, the denotation was to babble, or chatter, to make clear and I like the original meaning as opposed to the ugly interpretation we apply today.  

Now, let us discuss the essentials of successful arguing: communicating to make clear in a way that enhances relationship, rather than destroys it. To do this, we have to recognize some universal laws of relationships.

Some Universal Laws of Relationships

         We hurt most, those we love the most.  This is an inevitable fact that should be repeated in all weddings and rites of passage.  Being imperfect human beings, with differences in backgrounds, perceptions and perspectives, all relationships experience friction at the points where two people bond. Beyond this, we hurt ourselves by becoming frightened or taking offense because somebody does not live and act according to our expectations. Therefore, our goal should not be that our mate meets our expectations and never hurts us, but that we are secure in knowing our mate means well by us – that his or her intentions equally consider our well-being, otherwise known as the Golden Rule. In spite of our best intentions, though, all of us at times are thoughtless, heedless, overwhelmed, or simply out-of-touch with the needs of those we love.  We like because; we love although.

         All human beings have boundaries.  These boundaries are not just physical; they are emotional, mental and spiritual.  Boundaries are naturally defined by the friction points where two people bond, because that’s where the differences begin.  However, since intimacy involves a mutual opening of boundaries on all these levels, a core challenge of relationships is figuring out and remembering where I end and you begin.  Without this, we can lose ourselves in others to the extent that we become energetically drained and confused about our sense of self – particularly in cases where power is not equally shared.  Therefore, our goal in this area is to recognize and respect boundaries.  This requires deep awareness, sensitivity and maintaining a balance of power: care not to energetically drain or to power the other person. 

         True compatibility in a relationship is not so much about sameness as developing a shared experience of reality.  It would be too easy to say this is a fancy way of defining compatibility.  The truth is, a less-similar couple in true love may succeed in their relationship by willfully entering and sharing each other’s worlds through deep tolerance and empathy.  Indeed, such relationships can prove to be truly enriching.  Each partner recognizes and accepts the differences in the experience of reality in the other.  They know this is inevitable because of boundaries created by differences in physicality, experience, perceptions and perspectives.  These differences do not make the partner wrong.  

         Arguing, or negotiating, for a shared experience of reality in a relationship is essential to develop and maintain true intimacy. The key word here is “negotiating.” When intentions are good between a couple, whether consciously realized or not, the essential intent behind every argument is to bring the couple back into a shared experience of reality – whether they are attempting to agree on paying the bills, parenting the children, sharing leisure time, having a spiritual life, or achieving mutual sexual satisfaction.  Just like driving a car requires hundreds of little moment-to-moment corrections of the wheel to get to the destination, relationships require as many moment-to-moment communications as necessary to maintain and deepen a shared experience of reality.  This means arguing or negotiating in a constructive way that communicates through reality checks, confrontations, and other moment-to-moment sharing of experience.

Continued at: How to Argue - Part II

Granville Angell  © 02/2007

Granville Angell, EdS, LPC, NCC is a licensed professional counselor with 30 years experience.  His private practice, TRANSITIONS Personal & Family Counseling Services (www.transitions-counseling.com), includes a specialized sub-practice focusing on holistic, intuition-enhanced counseling and clinical hypnotherapy, called SoulMentors. He may be reached at 704-276-1164. angell(AT)transitions-counseling.com


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