Learning How to Argue

Healthy boundaries help, but that’s not all it takes to keep a relationship healthy. You need to be able to fight fair, and you have to be able to argue successfully. There are a lot of possible ways to fight fair and be successful. If so, why is it so hard? Because there are an infinite number of ways to fight unsuccessfully.  My online colleague Joel Miller has posted a few good tips:


I would venture to add some perspectives and comments to his excellent suggestions. One really blatant problem that comes up and needs to be avoided: no name calling. You’d be amazed at how many times this happens and how it can be either blatant or insidious. You can say “You’re an idiot,” which is blatant, or you can say “That’s a stupid idea,” which is less direct but still the functional equivalent in an argument. In the heat of an argument, things can get going pretty fast, and these kinds of things can really get flying.

A perspective related to Joel Miller’s “agree to disagree” point is a little different; acknowledge differences. On some things, we can agree to disagree: I like Beethoven the composer, you like Roll Over Beethoven by Chuck Berry. On other things, we can set the stage by acknowledging differences that are nevertheless negotiable. Some examples: You are a big neatnick, and I’m a slob. You like to save money, I like to spend. You want to be lenient in discipline of the kids, I want to be strict. In many areas of life, differences between people can fall on a spectrum. When getting along– or arguing– with a partner, we succeed in communicating when we understand which things are two points on a line, and which things are in different dimensions. If you like Thai food and I like Italian, those may not constitute two points on a line. But if you’re idea of the right amount to spend on going out to eat is $100 and up, tip included, and my idea is $50 or less, now we’re on a line. Money is an easy example because it’s quantitative, but other differences may fall on a spectrum as well. The point to acknowledge is this: even if we’re close together on an issue, we still probably represent two different points on a line.

As Joel’s post points out, there are some things where there’s no point arguing. A couple of guidelines for figuring it out– what’s an opinion, what’s a fact? Arguing whether Jimi Hendrix or Steven Sondheim is a greater composer will get you nowhere. Arguing over how to set family budget priorities may be tough, and it includes opinions, but the thing that makes it a valid argument is there’s an action item involved. Also, It’s concrete. Money will be spent. If we don’t pay the mortgage or the rent, we’ve got a problem.

John Gottman, who has specialized in marriage counseling, opines that 2/3 of all issues between couples are things that aren’t going to be solved by negotiation.


Oh, well.

My favorite comment on relationships that last was made by someone who had been with his partner for 30+ years.  I don’t remember the name of the author, unfortunately, but he (or was it she?) had simply interviewed a bunch of couples who had been together for a long time about what they thought made it work. Some couples were gay, some straight, some legally married, others not. The author and some of the couples were on a radio call in show taking calls, and one caller told a man who had been married 30+ years, “You must feel like your wife has no quirks, problems, etc.” and his response– “She has lots, but they’re not the ones that bug me.” After all this time, I obviously don’t remember the actual words, but that’s the sense of it as I remember it.

It has been pointed out, of course, that couples who fight actually have a better chance of staying together because they have practice handling conflict. Do  you agree, disagree?  I’d be interested to hear experiences, opinions, love stories, horror stories…


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
This entry was posted in arguing, belongingness, Couple communication, Couples and relationships, Emotions, Feelings, fighting, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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