What Are We Arguing About When We Argue?

March 9, 2015

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 ‘wo