What a simple question, right? We argue about what we argue about! She made plans with her friends without checking with me first! He left the toilet seat up again! She works too much! He never puts his clothes away! So, what do you mean, what are we arguing about? Isn’t it obvious? We’re arguing about plans with friends and toilet seats and working too much and messy floors!
Well, yes. At the level of content, these are the things – among the many, many other things – people in relationships argue about.
Many couples choose to argue at the level of content, and this makes complete sense: if I have a problem with my wife when she makes plans without asking me, or if she has a problem with me working too much, then it makes sense, in a way, to argue about making plans, checking in, and work commitments. However, this type of arguing can often end in difficult feelings, defensiveness, and a feeling of distance and misunderstanding in the relationship.
Why content is not the place to argue (at least at first)
There are two reasons why arguing at the level of content typically doesn’t work.
First, arguing at the level of content becomes a debate: both partners are trying to change the other person’s mind. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that you’re going to magically convince your partner that you’re right (or vice versa). My wife telling me (again) that our room looks messy when I don’t pick up my clothes isn’t going to all of a sudden make me realize: “Wow! Yes, honey, it really does look messy, and it’s awful! I can’t believe I haven’t realized how the room looks with my clothes on the floor. Thank you! I will always pick up my clothes from now on.” It’s not that I’m unwilling to compromise about picking up my clothes; it’s just that these types of arguments aren’t going to make me likely to compromise.
Why is this? Well, we may simply have different perspectives about clothes on the floor and how our bedroom should look. She’s not going to convince me that the appearance of the floor outweighs the convenience of my favorite jeans being right there where they are easy to get to, and I’m not going to convince her that the mess simply doesn’t (or shouldn’t) bother her. (Spoiler alert: we are arguing – or, more accurately, we are communicating – about the wrong thing!)
Second, when we choose to say something about what is bothering us, usually we are…well…bothered. We are experiencing some strong emotion that motivates us to speak up. When we are feeling strong emotions, the logical, thinking part of our brain tends to shut down. We can no longer make real compromises that we can both live with. Likewise, when we hear criticism (and we see our partners upset), we can also become upset, and that logical part of the brain (again) goes quiet. So, at this point, we can safely say that when we begin to engage in an argument, neither person is thinking logically. Even if we were willing to make a compromise (which, likely, we are not), it would be very difficult to think clearly enough to do so. And, if we do compromise anyway, it is often done with a feeling of resentment and the feeling that one person ‘won’ while the other person ‘lost.’
So, what else can we argue about?
If, at first, arguing about the content (“You need to stop bothering me about my clothes!”) seems to be fruitless and feels like butting heads, what should couples argue about? Well, the answer, to be honest, doesn’t look like arguing, and it won’t feel like arguing, because it’s not arguing. As one of my clients said to me, “Instead of arguing, we are supposed to get curious.” And that’s exactly right. The result will look like curiosity on the listener’s part and revealing, being vulnerable, and sharing honestly on the speaker’s part. Making this change in our communication can be very hard to do at first, but this gets us to what is underneath the argument, to what we are really arguing about when we argue.
Rather than the content of the situation, I often coach couples to explore what’s happening for each of them when the content drops away. I ask, what sensations are you feeling in your body? What emotions? And, finally, what is it that you really need? Rather than arguing about the issue at hand, I urge clients to share this information with one another.
At this point, it is important to clarify the difference between needs and wants. My wife may want me to pick my clothes up off the floor. But this is not a need – it is a want. A want is one way to get a need met, but it’s not the only way. If we can distinguish between the want and the need that drives it, we can be more flexible with our partners about how we get our needs met.
So what is a need? According to Marshall Rosenberg, needs are broad and universal. Not everyone has a need to have a floor free of clothing. But everyone does have a need – to a varying degree – to be considered and a need for order and structure. (See a helpful list of universal needs here).
Needs are useful when arguing because of their universal nature. I can disagree with my wife about the merits of clothes on the floor, but I have a much harder time disagreeing with the fact that she needs to feel order in her bedroom to help her calm down from her day and feel restful there. When I negotiate or compromise with my wife after ‘arguing’ at the level of needs, I can do so with understanding.
Like needs, emotions are also universal (we all have them!), and they are not really up for argument. Beware the pitfall of judging your partner’s emotions: “You have not right to be upset! You should feel happy because…”. The truth is this: if my wife is telling me she is upset, that’s all that matters – it doesn’t matter if I think she should feel something else.
And, if I can let the content of our argument fall away and just acknowledge her feelings of upset, I react very differently to her. When I can see her upset, I typically want to move closer to her, to soothe her. If I can attend to her emotions, and she can attend to mine, we are both in a much better place to return to the content of our argument. From this place, we can think logically again, and we are likely to make a compromise based on compassion.
[I’m using a generic feeling word, here: upset. Sometimes it’s good to be able to name more precisely the emotion or emotions you are feeling. You can find a partial list here.]
Negotiating solutions and compromising (the return to the content)
After being curious and understanding each other’s underlying needs and having compassion for one another’s underlying emotions, my wife and I are going to notice a big difference in how we continue the argument. It’s no longer going to feel like butting heads; it’s going to feel like a problem that we are working to solve together. Both of our needs are being considered, and both of our feelings are being acknowledged and validated. It’s very likely that we can find a solution that meets both of our needs. And, if not – say, for example, that I agree to put my clothes away all the time – this compromise is much more likely to be made out of understanding and compassion, minimizing the need for resentment or keeping score.
While the concept is simple, putting it into action is not. Arguing about content is often the only way we’ve ever learned to deal with a problem and, therefore, it is engrained in our automatic ways of interacting. The alternative, being honest with ourselves and our partners about what we truly need and how it feels when it doesn’t get met, is a vulnerable experience – one that many of us would prefer to avoid.
This process is also hard because it doesn’t always go smoothly. Even when needs are considered and emotions are validated, returning to the content can trigger other needs and emotions, necessitating another detour away from the content towards further understanding and compassion. Sometimes, repeating this process can feel intimidating or frustrating.
However, once you’ve experienced the closeness, trust, and happiness that can come from this way of ‘arguing,’ you might see that sometimes, taking the risk of vulnerability can be well worth it.
If you are ready to stop butting heads and keeping score, and you would like support in learning a different way of resolving conflict through working together to find mutually-benefitting solutions and compromises, don’t hesitate to contact me to talk about how couples counseling could transform your relationship, reducing conflict and alienation while increasing trust, safety, and closeness.
Tiger Argument image courtesy of Tambako the Tiger.
Clothes on the floor image courtesy of Natalie Schmid.