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How to Argue - Part III

In the first two installments of this series, we established the argument that the old notion holding that arguing is bad for our relationships is a dangerous myth.  Even in the most intimate relationships, there are natural boundaries that occur at the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual friction points, where one person ends and the other person begins.  It is at these points, where differences begin, that differences in perception and experience occur in each partner.  That these differences exist, does not make either partner wrong. However, the development and continuation of intimacy absolutely requires continuing communication that negotiates for a shared reality of experience.

When arguing is done for this purpose, with well-meaning intentions, intimacy deepens as alienation disappears and wounds are healed. Such constructive arguing, recognizing universal laws of relationships and using appropriate communication skills, should be used in all circumstances where differences are perceived between two persons.

We began the last installment by discussing the essential rules of engagement, which will now continue.

More Rules of Engagement

Reciprocate, listen and reflect.  A really good interaction is rather like a tennis or volleyball match.  Communication is clear and to the point, back and forth, without one-sided lectures, tirades, or monologues.  Clear, brief communication serves as an invitation to your partner to respond in kind.  Domination of communication by one partner is actually a violation of the other's boundaries.  On the other hand, a consistent response of silence and avoidance by one partner frequently indicates a lack of courage, passive aggression, or undeveloped communication skills, among other things. Patience and compassion in one partner eventually will encourage another well-intentioned partner to open up – if he has the courage.

Establish and maintain a common goal and work together to that end Many of us have suddenly interrupted a conversation with the exclamation, "What are we arguing about?" After negotiating perceptions, intentions and needs, communication should move to a level of coming to an agreement about what will end the conflict and where the couple can find a common ground.  What is the goal of our communication and how will we know when we reach it?  

Because of the importance of respecting boundaries, decisions will often involve some compromise.  Where couples are truly interested in loving and serving each other, this will rarely be a major problem.  We need to remember that we are not in this world to serve each others' expectations.  Rather, as we grow together, our service to each other will be acts of grace. And, sometimes, negotiating the differences we find in our partner can be the source of our greatest growth.

Always look for what you need to learn. Whether our egos appreciate it or not, we are put into this world for purposes of our higher development, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  In seeking relationships, we are naturally attracted to persons (whether consciously or unconsciously) who tend to complete us -- partners who have qualities and attributes we are needing to develop in ourselves.  This also has survival value for the larger entities involved: the marriage and the family.  Therefore, as we negotiate a shared reality through constructive arguing, it will serve us best to look for ways in which our partner’s qualities and attributes might enhance our own being. As in every challenge that life brings us, our communication with our partner should include our asking the question of ourselves, "What do I need to learn from this?"

Respect overwhelm; take timeout as needed. One of life's greatest challenges involves arguing constructively for a shared reality without violating boundaries and alienating our partner.  It is only natural for frustration and tension to build at times.  As always, it is essential that each partner has continuing assurance that the other means well and has good intentions.  Simple kindness is the rule here. Sometimes, tension and overwhelm build to a point where emotions make it difficult to be kind, or where reasoning deteriorates into confusion. 

In the usual rules of war, in our society, this is where one partner has the cue to go in for the kill.  However, since maintaining love and intimacy in a shared reality is our common goal, we fall back.  The first partner who recognizes that communication has become destructive, or is about to become destructive, asks for a timeout, which is always honored by the other partner.  Remember, the goal of the argument is for the relationship to win; not either partner.

The use of timeout is not to be employed simply as a way of avoiding discussion.  Doing so, on the part of one partner, would be indicative of that partner either being lazy, lacking in courage, or, not meaning well by the other.  On the other hand, sensitive topics should be brought up for discussion only at appropriate times -- with each partner being sensitive to the needs of the other.  Finally, when a timeout is called, it is best to also establish an expected time frame in which discussion will resume.  For example: “This is hurting us. Let’s cool off and come back to it after dinner.” This way, neither partner should feel "put off" by the timeout and there will be the comfort of knowing the issue will be discussed until it is resolved.

Affirm yourself by sharing your truth. Nothing can validate and affirm you more than your sharing of your experience.  In our society, we are taught to find our source of personal validation and affirmation in the feedback of others.  Certainly, as children we should receive this from our parents.  As adults, we should receive this from our spouses, and others close to us in our lives.  However, we are given the perception that this is the way to find validation in a world where so many of us find ourselves ignored, misunderstood, and undervalued. We want our partners to validate us by living according to our expectations, by giving us what we want, or by saying they are sorry and making amends, according to our expectations, when they fall short.  Part of becoming truly mature involves recognizing and consistently remembering that we are the person closest to ourselves; that we are the only person we will never leave or lose; that we are the only person living completely inside our perceptions!  This is not being selfish -- it is reality!  This is why we say, the most important thing in a relationship is not having the right person -- it's being the right person. 

Therefore, if we are to argue successfully, we must open up and share our own experience, our own perceptions, our own needs -- regardless of how we imagine that our partner may respond to our disclosures.  Given, this should only be done in circumstances under which we feel reasonably assured that our partner will not respond abusively to us -- lest we find ourselves casting our pearls before swine!  No other person on the planet has the power to validate that inner child that dwells in all of us like our own mature, adult self standing up with the courage to share our own experience of reality.   

Practice Integrity.  The only way to practice integrity is by being a person of integrity. Integrity entails oneness.  It means developing ourselves with courage to the point that we are not living fractionated lives, with different parts of ourselves split off from each other so that we conveniently pull up different parts at different times to make the best impressions in order to be acceptable by all. It requires that we accept all parts of ourselves, including those most in need of development.  Integrity involves recognition of our unity and connectedness -- not only with those we love in personal relationships, but also with the world at large.  This is the true root of selflessness. When we act with integrity, such as consistently responding to the needs of others in the way we would have our own needs met, we are said to have honor -- a trait rarely discussed in modern day society.  It takes great courage to develop integrity and such is often best expressed through committing oneself to a relationship, for better or worse.


Granville Angell   © 03/2007

Next: The Meaning of Commitment

Granville Angell, EdS, LPC, NCC, is a local counselor and author of The God-Shaped Hole – A Story of Comfort for The Child in All of Us. Contacts: angell(AT)transitions-counseling.com TRANSITIONS , at 704-276-1164; web site: www.transitions-counseling.com, where you can read prior articles.

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