When my friend Steve’s wife filed for divorce, her reason stunned him. “She said it was because we never argue,” he said. “I thought that was a good thing.”
Many of us are raised to believe that people in love never disagree. It’s a lie, of course. Arguing, when engaged in respectfully, releases tension and clarifies values, so it can actually draw a couple closer together. Most people, like Steve, avoid disagreements, preferring to ignore potential conflicts in the hope that the trouble will fade away. It rarely does. Instead it accumulates until the couple grow apart or until they erupt like twin volcanoes, spewing hatred as thick as lava. Battle-ready, each person focuses on winning and on being right, but not on loving the other or hearing their concerns.
Few of us know how to argue, but we’re skilled in how to raise our voices and fight. By definition, fights are conflicts in which we use our intimate knowledge of the other person as ammunition and aim words or actions to inflict deep emotional wounds. Fights escalate quickly into a desire for complete destruction, which is the intent of war.
What kind of successful national peace movement can exist when many of us are fighting or at war in our personal relationships? The personal easily becomes political—the anger we harbor at the father who abandoned us or the spouse whose affection is sparse is redirected toward, for example, our government (for liberals) or the Taliban (for conservatives).
Many of us are so tangled up in our own emotional crises we refuse opportunities to learn about the (often more real) troubles of people on the other side of the world. So, the war in Iraq, the genocide in the Sudan and the child sex-slave industries in Mexico and Asia are ignored in favor of pouring our energy into proving that our parent or significant other should do, say or be what we have determined is right. Better still, that they owe us an apology.
In psychology and religion, this behavior is seen as a form of self-hate. As Zen Buddhist author and teacher Cheri Huber notes, “Self-hate is not asserting myself on an issue that is important to me (like animal rights, ending hunger, nuclear energy, crime) then making a life-and-death issue of something trivial (like misplaced car keys, noisy neighbors, color-coded office files).”
One way to alter our addiction to fighting and war is to learn how to argue fairly. Here are eight simple rules, culled from the work of author Michele McCarty, to use as guides.
Don’t generalize. Arguments rapidly intensify when the words “always” and “never” are employed, as in “You never believe me” or “You always forget to cook when it’s your turn.” Broad, vague accusations put people on the defensive.
Don’t state your opinion as if it were fact. Be confident enough to own your opinion and to acknowledge the validity of the other person’s view.
Don’t take your anger out on innocent bystanders. If you have a fight with your partner, process the feelings right away. Otherwise, those emotions will bleed out into your other relationships, especially with strangers. That’s how road rage is born.
Don’t tell others how they think or feel. Defining someone’s experience for them by saying things like “You think I don’t care about you” or “You feel hurt” only proves that you are not to be trusted. Talk only about yourself using “I” messages: “I am afraid that I have hurt you again” or “I worry that my temper will separate us.” Vulnerability is key to the healthy resolution of conflict.
Don’t use double messages. Your body language and words should be in concert, not conflict. If you’re smiling while saying something unkind, you’re sure to be seen as twisted and a liar.
Don’t argue in public. Respect your partner and the serenity of our community enough to have arguments in private. If that means you have to leave the mall to sit in the car and discuss something, do it.
Do stick to the point. Don’t raise every problem you ever faced as a couple. Don’t drop the F-bomb (or any other swear word) and don’t attack the other’s manhood, womanhood, reputation or appearance or use any other form of psychological warfare.
Do sweat the small stuff. Don’t let small concerns pile up until you explode with anger at something trivial. Handling concerns as they arise will keep fights from evolving into war.