Most couples have that one argument that keeps resurfacing. You both dig in your heels and try to convince the other person that you’re right. It’s tempting to focus all of your energy on justifying your position rather than looking for a solution. Unfortunately, feeling justified doesn’t move you forward.
I discuss a healthy step-by-step approach to navigating the difficult and sometimes long-lasting disagreements that can spring up in marriage — and how you can come out closer as a couple on the other side.
What you’ll learn in this episode:
- The key to success in any argument
- Why your conviction in your argument proves nothing about how “true” it is
- How to step back and find your shared goal
- When you’ll know it’s the right time to have a healthy, productive discussion
What are the subjects you avoid discussing in your marriage?
I’m going to teach you today how to argue productively.
This is Couples Coaching and I’m Natalie Clay.
In a marriage, you are both unique individuals with various moods, insecurities and opinions that come along with that. I’ve mentioned before that this really is an asset as you try to navigate life together, but of course there are going to be times when you argue.
So, my goal today is not to try and convince you that you should never argue. Of course you should, and you will. But the amazing thing about being a human with a prefrontal cortex is that we get to deliberately decide what to do next.
Now some arguments are quick and fairly painless and resolve themselves in a day. Let’s skip over those for now. When you practice working on the bigger arguments, those little arguments will be even less significant than they already are.
What I’m talking about today are those bigger arguments we have. The ones that come up over and over throughout the years, taking on a slightly different look each time, but ultimately go back to the same old thing. These are the arguments that we’ve spent so much time discussing but never seem to make any headway on. In fact, all the talking sometimes leaves us feeling even more wounded and disconnected.
Does this ring a bell? Is there anything you struggle with that seems to have no answer? Here are the things that I hear most often when it comes to some of these difficult areas of marriage:
- spending versus saving money
- our ideas on raising kids
- in laws
- how to connect
- how we spend our time
We’re really good at talking at length about our side of the argument and why it makes so much sense. We can talk it to death, and that’s exactly what some people love to do. Stop doing that. Right now. It is not helping. If it’s 2:00 o’clock in the morning, you should be sleeping, not trying to find some understanding that’s just out of reach.
When you’re convinced that you have the answer to the issue at hand, that only means you’ve thought of another way to convince your spouse that your reasons are better than theirs. That’s not very nice. But it is human nature, so don’t feel bad about it. Instead, let’s put that energy towards learning a new way.
Here are my 6 steps to arguing productively.
I’m going to use the example of arguments related to raising kids. Maybe one of you feels that good grades are really important while the other one feels strongly that hard work is enough and grades aren’t indicative of future success.
Don’t talk about it until you are at the place where you are looking to find understanding.
Another way to say this is that you are looking to understand and not to just be understood. This means both of you have arrived at this place, by the way. Don’t expect to arrive at this point at the same time, be patient.
You know how differently you feel when this shift occurs. Instead of being so concerned about being right, you’re just much more concerned about moving forward. And this doesn’t look anything like being right. It looks more like being tired of avoiding each other and wanting to connect again.
Now let me be clear, until you are at this place, do not engage in a conversation about this topic. You know how good it feels when you know you’re right and you just have to explain it to them enough times that they’ll see it? This is not the time to have that conversation.
Give it all the time required for you to have the conversation from an emotion that will drive productive action. Something like curiosity, humility, openness, as opposed to defensiveness, pride or hurt.
Step back and find your shared goal.
Even though you’re arguing, you’re fighting for a common goal. In this example, it’s easy to see that you both love your children and you want the best for their future. You just have different ideas on how to help them in this tiny moment of their lives. And that’s okay. It’s really, truly not a bad thing.
This is a good time to remember that some of the reasons you fell in love with your spouse is because they view life differently than you. Imagine what you would miss out on if you and your spouse instantly agreed on everything. Difference provides a unique perspective and that allows you the opportunity to learn new and maybe even better ways to do things.
Now, the reason we don’t view it that way takes us to step #3.
There is no right and wrong side of the argument.
Until you’re interested in learning what your spouse’s truth is, instead of just convincing them of yours, remember, it’s not time to have the discussion.
Your conviction isn’t coming from an ultimate truth that you are somehow aware of and your spouse is not.
Conviction usually comes from two places.
First, fear. The fear of being wrong and therefore looking weak. Or, conviction comes from a sense of satisfaction. From thoughts that feel just right.
Now, I want you to notice that neither of those things have anything to do with your spouse, by the way. And this also means their reasons for their conviction have nothing to do with you. But we always make it mean something about us, and that’s what makes it harder than even disagreeing in the first place.
So let go of this idea that there is a right or wrong way for your child to experience academics. Instead, allow yourself to be wrong and allow your spouse the same privilege. As scary as being wrong sounds, when you allow for it, you will be much more likely to hear what your spouse has to say instead of just telling them what you want them to understand.
I also want to add that while we’re on the topic of raising kids, what a great opportunity this is to teach them that you can disagree with someone on something that feels like a core issue, and you can still love them. That disagreement doesn’t ever need to mean that one person is right and the other is ignorant.
If you think about our current social climate, this is a lesson we could really use.
Have the conversation.
Once you’ve gotten to this place of openness, you’re in the perfect place to have the discussion. Emotion will still arise, but if you’re truly looking to understand instead of being understood, you’ll make progress.
When you’re having this discussion from the emotion of curiosity instead of anger, it won’t need to be something long and drawn out. Make it 30 minutes, tops, and that’s on the long side. Instead of justification, this conversation is all about finding solutions.
Now the goal of this conversation isn’t to get to 100% agreement or understanding. I want to be really clear about that. Instead of needing your spouse to understand, remember that they don’t have to like your reasons.
Decide on a unified approach to only the very next step of what you’re attempting to do.
This doesn’t mean you will necessarily even solve the disagreement as a whole, but we can always decide on a good approach to move forward. Sometimes, just moving forward instead of standing firm in your opposition is the key to learning what works and what doesn’t.
Maybe look toward a compromise with grades. What can you try in the name of your shared higher goal? Simply making a decision about a next step will always be productive.
When we just keep arguing to be right, we get nowhere. When we take action and move forward, even just the slightest bit, we get lots of information back. Even if it doesn’t yield results either one of you are happy with, simply knowing what doesn’t work means you’re closer to finding out what does.
Make a deliberate decision together so you can approach things as a unified couple, and this will likely include some compromise.
Don’t hope for failure when you compromise. This may sound really obvious, but when we aren’t doing things exactly the way want, it’s human nature to want to see them fail because your brain equates that to being right. Your brain really wants to be right. Keep reminding yourself that being right is not actually the goal here.
Make the decision the right one.
Did you know you can do this with every choice you make in your life? Even the choices you made in the past? All of it is now there to help you be better informed for whatever life offers next, and that is never a bad thing.
So once you’ve deliberately decided on a plan for next steps, don’t try and control whatever happens next. Keep reminding yourself that you chose this approach. No matter how much you compromised.
If you feel the resistance coming back, just check in with yourself. Do you like your reasons for compromising the way you did? Then things are happening exactly the way they should. You’re moving along and gaining further insights by walking down the road a little further instead of staying in your ditch.
Now the key to all of this is to not make any of the results mean anything about you or your spouse, or, in our example here, your child. We’re supposed to mess it up. It’s okay.
If it’s something critical to your child’s future, you’ll get some insight on that, or they’ll find other ways to learn what they need to learn. We don’t want to take action from pressure.
The key to success in all of this is to strip away the emotion of our arguments. Arguing means we care. It means we’re both invested. Again, remember, we’re both invested in our ultimate goal that we are completely unified on most of the time.
Go into your conversation remembering that, and then it’s just a matter of what should we try next. If that doesn’t work, we’re going to try something else and be really clear on what results you are actually looking for.
We don’t have control over whether or not your child gets a 4.0. And that’s a good thing. We don’t need to control that. Your child is becoming the person that they are meant to become.
But who do you want to be in the various roles you play? What kind of spouse do you want to be as you go through challenges?
It’s okay that you’re not perfect. You’re never going to be. It’s okay that you’re incredibly insecure in various aspects of your life. We all are. It’s okay to do it wrong. Take action from an emotion you like and there is no doing it wrong.
Just keep practicing, remembering that you and your spouse chose one another and you are always connected by your shared higher goals. The things that matter the most.
We all just want to feel loved, accepted, like maybe we’re doing an okay job and that’s something we have to practice believing for ourselves. Fortunately, and unfortunately, another person’s words are never going to satisfy that for us.
So don’t be afraid to argue; arguing shows you care. But argue in a loving way. Argue in a way that’s going to help you grow together as a couple. Remembering that growth is usually not a comfortable process, and that’s okay. Just always take a look at the emotion you’re acting from.
Of all the emotions you can choose to feel, love feels the very best.
If you like anything you’ve heard today and would like personal help in your own marriage, come join me in Marriage Lab, where you can get coached live on any topic that’s bothering you.
Just register at www.natalieclay.com.