Sunday, June 14, 2009

How Do You Argue Well?

Marriage starts with a ceremony, but takes a lifetime to be worked out. Some people seem to be good at it right from the start. But most of us have to work at it a bit. It takes time, it takes care, and it takes good communication. Every couple has things they have to work on or work through together.

Some may never argue at all, and always be able to work things out easily between themselves. More power to them! Most of us are not like that, however, and we hash things out a little more passionately. But arguments don't have to be bad. They can actually be quite constructive if both parties are on the same page about how to do it. Before we got married, Dominic and I actually laid some ground rules for arguing. We're not perfect, and we sometimes fail, but the rules themselves have not. And I thought I'd share them.

1. Pick your battles. This was one I figured out before I got married. I watched a couple I knew have intense disagreements over the garbage. It could have been easily worked out if they'd communicated well, but they didn't. It became a huge issue. I realized that it could have also been easily solved if one of them had just let it go, because it wasn't a big deal. But neither one could do that either. I resolved that I would discuss with my husband the real issues, and let the little things go.

2. Have a shared purpose. For us, the purpose of every argument is to find a solution to the problem that we're having. We want each argument to be constructive and useful so that we don't have to have it again. This also helps prevent a winner/loser scenario. When the goal is helping your marriage be better, you both win and you don't have to be right.

3. Only discuss the issue you're actually arguing about. The bible says "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs." (1 Corinthians 13:4-5) All of this is hard, but we tend to be especially good at remembering what our spouse has done wrong in the past. It is so tempting to bring that up to show a pattern of behavior. But it's actually counter productive. The other person ends up feeling like they're being piled on and it becomes too much to be worked out and they give up. If there is another issue that needs to be discussed, save it for later. Right now the argument is about this current issue.

4. No name calling. I know this seems like a simple rule, but some people really struggle with it. I've been tempted to throw out a name a time or two, but remember your purpose. You're not going to find a solution to your current issue if you're heaping more hurt feelings on top of things.

5. Try not to phrase things in ways that call for your husband to defend himself. For example, a "Honey, it would mean a lot to me if you'd try to remember to put the seat down" goes over a lot better than, "Why can't you ever put the seat down?" The first example doesn't even state the problem, but instead, offers a solution. The question demands a defense, so now he's going to try to explain why he doesn't put the seat down instead of agreeing to try to do so in the future.

6. Don't use absolutes. It's really easy when emotions are running high to throw out words like "never" and "always". For example "You never pick your socks up off the floor" may feel right, but may not be totally true. And if he can remember even one time he's picked his socks up off the floor, he's now free to totally disregard your point, which is that you'd really like him to make an effort to do so more often. For the record, I personally say if my husband's socks being on the floor is my biggest complaint, I've got a pretty darned good husband. These are just examples.

7. If you can, try to communicate as a team member, rather than an opposing player. What I mean by that is sharing something like, "I feel like this is a problem for us, and I'd really like to find things that we can both do to work on it. Is there somewhere I can put the hamper so that it will be easier for you?" This kind of communication allows us both join in finding an answer and is really helpful.

8. Talk about how you feel, rather than what he's doing. Explaining that finding clothes on the floor makes you feel discouraged when you're trying really hard to make your home nice for him allows him to get a glimpse of what it's like from your perspective. Likewise, it's a really good idea to ask your husband how he sees things. From my own experience, I'm often looking at how an issue is affecting me and haven't even considered that there's a reason that he's doing something.

9. Don't argue in front of the kids. Another simple one, but one that's easy to forget. A simple discussion is great for kids to see and it models some important social and interpersonal skills. But something where passions are running high can be really frightening for them. If it's starting to get heated, I suggest that we both go somewhere private, or suggest the kids go do something else.

10. Resolve it. When you've hashed things out, make sure you've found a solution that you both feel good about. Recap what the issue has been and what steps you're going to take to help it not occur in the future. Make sure that solutions involve both of you. If something has gotten heated, it's likely (at least in my house) that both spouses have some ownership in the conflict and can do something to make it better. And make sure he's comfortable with it.

11. Don't be afraid to apologize. It's so simple, but nothing helps soothe ruffled feathers like a heartfelt "I'm sorry for what happened" even if it's not all your fault. You can be sorry that the argument happened, sorry for your part in it, sorry if you've realized you really were at fault. Honestly in my house, it can be all of those.

We picture marriage as blissful and easy but in reality, it's a challenge for two people to learn to live with each other day in and day out. Love is what makes it a joy instead of a burden. My last piece of advice isn't really a rule for arguing, but a suggestion for every wife. Pray for your husband, and yourself as a wife, and pray for your marriage. God is there to hold us up, and He is faithful to do so. But we have to include Him.

"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
Ephesians 5:31-33


  1. Aaaaw! Number 6! We LIVE by that one over here! Not using absolutes has really made a difference for us.

    The entire list was great. Thanks for sharing that, it inspired to share some of ours on my blog in the future, as well as some great ones I read in a book about marriage!

  2. This is a fantastic list! Whenever I get annoyed I just remember what Dr. Laura tells wives who call to complain about their husband's messes - she says to them, you'd miss that mess if he was gone.
    It's important to remember that the relationship is what matters, not little annoyances.


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