Where Logic Meets Love

Mike and Jessica's Guide to Healthy Arguments

Thursday, August 11, 2011

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Mike and Jessica's Guide to Healthy Arguments | Faith Permeating Life
Mike and I don't really fight.

We definitely don't agree all the time, but I would say we argue maybe 3-4 times a month. (And by argue I mean personal arguments, not arguments about politics and such, which we also have.)

We had one such argument tonight, which followed our usual pattern:
  • Argue
  • Come to a resolution
  • Agree that we've reached a resolution
  • Deconstruct the argument we just had to figure out what went wrong*
By no means do I think that after 7 years together we have a foolproof method of communication, and I realize that a lot of our good communication is a result of my master's degree in communication and his master's degree in social work, which makes us both really interested in analyzing our own conversations.

Having said that, I try to share with you, my wonderful readers, those things that I have found to work well for myself in hopes that they will be of some benefit to you.

And so, here are the tips Mike and I have picked up over 7 years of arguing and analyzing our arguments:
  • Set ground rules. Mike and I came from two very different backgrounds, almost stereotypically so: the one in which conflict was avoided whenever possible -- my mom still gets visibly anxious anytime Mike and I so much as disagree in front of her -- and the one in which conflict was woven into the fabric of daily life. In Mike's family, it was understood that when you were fighting, all bets were off and you could just vent freely without worrying about fighting fair. He quickly learned that I took everything he said seriously and was not quick to forgive if he said something truly hurtful.
  • Understand your involuntary habits. We've established that while I hate crying and try to avoid it at all costs, I have no control over my tendency to cry, so my crying is not meant to be manipulative or make me out to be a victim, it's just something I can't help that should be ignored. On another point, Mike will sometimes raise his voice without even realizing it, which I interpret as yelling and which can lead to a subsequent argument about whether or not he was yelling at me. We've talked over these things so we both have a better idea how to react when they happen.
  • Focus on the issue at hand. To my overly logical mind, it's like a courtroom: You can summon evidence to back up a point, but not simply for character defamation. Stick to specific facts rather than making broad, sweeping statements. For example, "I asked whether you went to the store not because I don't trust you, but because last week you said you were going, and then you didn't." That is different than, "I asked whether you went to the store because you're always forgetting to do stuff and I have no idea if I can trust you to follow through on anything."
  • Acknowledge the other person's feelings. When you focus on actions and reasons, you may lose sight of the real issue. "You did X." "I did X because of A, B, and C!" The point is rarely whether you had a good reason for doing something. In a relationship, the important thing is to act in a way that doesn't hurt the other person. This is why Mike always uses the phrase "Have you considered..." rather than "Why don't you..." even if he thinks that "Why don't you..." is a perfectly reasonable thing to say.
  • Similarly, explain how you feel. I know it's a cliché to use "I feel" statements instead of "you did" statements, but it really does make for a better conversation. As mentioned above, focusing only on actions can derail a conversation. If you keep your focus on why the other person was wrong, all you're going to do is make the other person defensive because they don't probably feel like they were wrong. But if you help them understand the connection between their actions and your feelings, you can reasonably request that they don't do it anymore without having to prove that it's the "wrong" thing to do.
  • Focus on solutions rather than blame. There are two ways to work toward a resolution: past-oriented and future-oriented. Past-oriented is saying, "You did X, which upset me." Future-oriented is saying, "If you could do Y in the future, then I would not be upset / not react the way I did." Certainly you can explain both, but focusing more on what you would like to see happen rather than what you didn't like that happened will help you agree on a solution more quickly.
  • Clarify the solution. Maybe your partner says, "If you did Y in these kinds of situations, that would really help" and you're thinking, "But I already did Y and it didn't work!" Rather than privately stewing or lashing out about it, just clarify. Say, "I thought I was doing Y when I did A, B, and C. How is that different from what you're asking?"

    This happened tonight when Mike and I were talking. He said, "I'd appreciate if you just asked whether I'd thought about some detail, rather than assuming that I hadn't and telling me to do it." I asked, "Hm, I thought that's what I was doing when I asked, 'Have you thought about when you're going to send the fax?' How could I ask differently?" He thought about it for a minute and then decided that actually the way I'd asked was fine, it was just the fact that I'd asked while he was in the middle of doing the dishes that was the problem. I could have said, "No, I already tried that and it didn't work!" but instead I tried to clarify exactly what Mike wanted me to do, which led to a better solution.
  • Once you've reached a resolution, stop. Let's say your partner acknowledges that the thing they did upset you or hurt you, and they explain how they will avoid doing it in the future. It can be so tempting to continue hashing out why it upset you so much or how many times they've done it in the past or trying to make them apologize, but none of that is going to make things any better. The goal is to make sure both parties feel heard and understood and that you both understand and agree on the solution.
Those are the main things I can think of. I'm sure there is lots more to be said on this topic! Please leave your own tips in comments, or share what struggles you have with handling conflict in your partnership.

*EDIT: I realized after writing this that there's actually one more step, of agreeing on a second solution about how to avoid turning this kind of conversation into an argument in the future. We realize that often what leads to an argument is not the topic itself but how we communicate about it. Thus, in tonight's argument, our first resolution was that Mike was going to make a doctor's appointment for next week. Our second resolution was that I wouldn't bring up things like that while he was doing the dishes.


  1. This rocks. Amazingly. I love your road map!

    Husband and I don't fight either. Coming from an incredibly volatile and confrontational family, it seems bizarre to even say those words. I never imagined I could have a relationship where we could handle our differences without a verbal cage match. It is so incredibly empowering to be able to work through a disagreement and to come out on the other end, not only speaking to each other and not screaming, but actually hugging and thanking each other!

  2. @Macha

    I agree--it is awesome to actually be able to have calm and loving arguments. That is why Mike and I don't finish our conversation until we've both agreed that we've reached a resolution--if one of us is still feeling upset, it's likely that we haven't hashed out all the issues at hand yet. Once we do, it's great, because we both feel understood and like we have a good plan for the future that we've worked on together, which always ends up making me grateful for having such a wonderful husband!

  3. PS - husband says your post reads like textbook (i.e. awesome) counseling advice (he has his degree in psychology), and he gave me a "well, duh" look when I read off your job description. Any chance you studied psychology (sorry if you've posted this elsewhere)?

  4. @Macha
    Communication (my graduate degree) has a lot of overlap with psychology and sociology. I also read a lot of articles and books about stuff like this because it fascinates me :)

    Mike's bachelor's degree is in psychology, and his master's degree is in social work. Thus why we're both interested in dissecting our own conversations!

  5. You know I agree with you on this one. :) Dan and I have found that simply recognizing a) where we come from/how we were raised, b) our own "pattern" for handling disagreements, and c) knowing what the other person needs or expects from you, can really make "fights"/"arguments" go much more smoothly. Like you, I can't control my crying, so even if I'm pulling together rational thoughts and not particularly distressed by him in particular, I will still be crying, and he knows to wait until I've calmed down and can talk like an adult again. :) You're right, simply saying, "This is how this affected me, and next time it would be easier if you/we..." can be incredibly powerful! I've seen it work so many times that I'm convinced. :)

  6. @Missy
    You're right, simply saying, "This is how this affected me, and next time it would be easier if you/we..." can be incredibly powerful! I've seen it work so many times that I'm convinced. :)
    What's interesting is that I can't figure out if I actually saw that kind of conversation modeled anywhere, or if it's just something that evolved from my arguments with Mike and all my pop psych reading. It's not exactly the way you see fights go in TV and movies. So I guess it's no wonder most people don't seem to approach arguments this way.

  7. Oh my gosh, you guys sound like you're perfect! I know, you're not, and I'm sure you have your faults, but this is DH's and my biggest issue. And it just saddens me a bit to see that other people don't deal with this in the same way. I think it's also because we are both hot-tempered, stubborn individuals.

    I am also a crier when angry, and I HAAAATE IT. I've done it at work, too. Ugh. Anyway, DH does often interpret it as trying to be manipulative, etc. Both of us can and do raise our voices to be more serious, and I often think he's yelling at me...so like the two of you, I do go down the "why are you yelling at me now???" path. It's not easy....

  8. @Rabbit
    What's helped us most to get to this point is relentlessly discussing and dissecting our own communication styles. We talk through our assumptions, our natural reactions, our interpretations of things the other person said. It doesn't stop us from fighting, but it makes the argument more of an open book where we both can ignore the irrelevant factors (crying, yelling) to focus on working toward a resolution. It took us a long time to get to this point, I assure you :)

  9. I have nothing to add, except that I love this!

  10. I cannot tell you how much I can relate to so much of this post. The biggest hurdle, in my opinion, is overcoming/melding the two styles of conflict that each person grew up with. More than likely, both ways suck and there needs to be a new way developed. :)

  11. Oh, and I'm also a crier. And it happens so often that it seems to have no affect on my husband anymore. Which can be problematic when I truly am hurt or upset. I have tried to gain more control when it comes to the tears but it's kinda just part of my dna. As my father says, I was crying before I was all the way out of the womb and I haven't stopped since. Nice, right? :) But I'm also the type who wants to rehash and rehash to the point of absurdity. Bill, like Mike, came from a family where one could tear into someone in a fight and say anything. Which, as you might guess, sparks the annoying tears. Oh my goodness. Conflict resolution is so challenging!

  12. @Caiti
    The crying thing is tough because it can be hard to be taken seriously when you're crying; yet, like you said, sometimes you want him to take you seriously because you're crying.

    Thankfully Mike and I both learned pretty quickly how to adapt our communication styles to each other and avoid most of the pitfalls of our families of origin. Like you said, sometimes it's best to start from scratch with learning a healthy way to communicate!

  13. okay so I need to know,
    what if all your partner says is: "I dunno." to absolutely everything?!


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