Arguing gets a lot of attention in therapy - another busy year has slipped by, and 2018 has now crept in to place, and I'm looking forward to a further year of working with more couples and families. And I'm guessing that arguments will again play a central role in bringing people to my office.
Over the last year, I've found myself increasingly focusing on arguing - and what I'm referring to there, is what it means, why people do it, and how productive or not it really is. And I'm talking about a specific type of argument here - that is the type that we have with our partners, and family members. Arguments exist in other settings, such as the courts, or parliament - but it's the more domesticated variety that I'm referring to here, because that's the type that we all have some familiarity with.
I get to witness a lot of arguments - I guess it's one of the perks of my job! Couples and families will come in to my office, and many are OK to really let rip on who ever else is attending with them, once a contentious issue has been raised. Often they will hope I will take sides - which I try to avoid doing. And sometimes it can be useful for me to be able to observe how couples or family members might relate to each other, and what their conflict management skills are like, but otherwise it's probably a big waste of their time - they can (and do) do this at home, (without having to pay for it). Coming to therapy is ideally about getting some tools or strategies for doing things differently, so they don't flip yet again into that same old unhelpful pattern that they have engaged in a thousand times before.
When arguments go bad, they usually include the following ingredients: voices become raised/participants begin to feel worked up and agitated/participants stop listening to each other, and wait for a pause so they can put out more ideas of their own/there is no productive outcome/it gets suspended when one or the other partners walk away or withdraw/there is no productive outcome.
This is not to say that arguing is a bad thing. But if it's happening all the time, (say, daily, or even several times a week), and there is no productive outcome, other than each party feeling distressed yet again, then that's a concern. Maybe it's unrealistic to think we will never argue with those close to us. But as a therapist, I'm likely to be also concerned about couples or families who say they never argue. If they don't argue, then what do they do with their differing ideas and opinions? Does that mean it's not OK to have a voice? Or do they simply have really excellent communication skills?
So if you are going to argue, it's really important to have it work for you - otherwise it's a waste of time. And to increase the chances of it working for you, consider how it works for the other party too, by including the following ingredients:
1) Avoid arguments - (a logical first step!). This happens if you communicate with each other respectfully and calmly at all times. But, if you do wind up there yet again...
2) Stay on the topic - it's not the time to drag out the list of unresolved issues from last month, or last year. And if there is a steadily growing list, that is also telling you something significant about how futile your arguments are turning out to be.
3) Watch your own delivery - if you are angry/loud/sarcastic/use personal criticisms/not listening, within minutes you will be getting some or all of these back in return. You each wind up defending yourselves, and the issue that had been important just five minutes ago is now swamped and has zero chance of being resolved. One more issue to add to that list...
4) Be able to hear the other person's perspective. Aside from your own very compelling perspective, there is another person whose view is just as valid as yours. Let them know you are hearing them.
5) Allow for different processing speeds. Some people can work through a conflict quite quickly and move right along. Whereas others might need to spend some time unpacking the issue, and coming up with a response. So how can these differing (yet equally valid) needs be taken in to account?
6) Understand when we are done. It's quite an aggressive thing to do, if one of the parties walks off in a huff, because it is not going their way, (or going anywhere). Check in with each other once it starts to feel circular and pointless: "are we getting anywhere with this?" Or "Should we have a break and check in again in an hour?"
All of these are important ways for managing conflict when it erupts, and the reality is that conflict can never be completely avoided. But if couples and families focus in on quality communication, and can sit with varying ideas, and can value different opinions, the arguments are going to be far less frequent and will cause less distress to the players involved.
I'm always available to work with families and couples who want to zero in on improving their communication so that arguments can have less impact on their lives. Feel free to contact me if you have questions about this or want to make an appointment.
"Some occasional thoughts about families, relationships, and other things that distract us...."