How to Turn an Argument into a Productive Conversation

There is a dynamic that occurs in almost all close, long term relationships between two people (usually who love each other).

What happens is that each partner begins to think, feel and say, “If you would just do/not do x, y and z everything would be fine.”  Meanwhile the other partner is thinking, feeling and saying, “If you would just do/not do a, b and c everything would be great.”  Each partner is busy trying to change the other partner and is continually annoyed that nothing changes.  Whereupon each partner tries the same tactic again, and is frustrated that again…nothing changes.  Well as the saying goes, if nothing changes, nothing changes.

There are three important things that BOTH partners need to do to avoid this game:

(They are easier said than done)

1.     When you give messages to your partner, try to word the message in a way that focuses on how your partner’s behavior affects you, not in a way that sounds attacking or blaming.

For example, “It hurt me (or made me feel discounted, not cared for etc.) when you….” vs. “You are being an insensitive jerk.”  This is a rather extreme example, but what happens with many statements that do not focus on how you feel, but instead focus on your partners behavior, is that your partner’s first instinct is to defend himself or herself.  What often happens is your partner defends himself or herself by either denying that he/she did what you say he/she did or he/she tells you that you should not feel the way you do.  Or, he/she counter attacks with something you have done that he/she did not like.

2.     When you receive messages from your partner, take it as feedback.

When your partner tells you his or her feelings, there is really only one thing to say, “Ok, I accept that, I will try to take that into consideration/work on that.”

The issue is, when someone tells you how he/she feels, there is no point in telling him or her he/she should not feel that way.  He/she already does.  You probably did not intend to make him/her feel that way, and it is likely uncomfortable for you that you did, so people’s first instinct is to try to talk their partner out of feeling that way, or to defend themselves.  Even if you feel your partner is being oversensitive, there is no point in trying to talk him/her out of it.  Feelings are not logical, they just are.  You can not change your partner’s feelings, nor can he/she, for that matter. In fact, the more you try to talk him/her out of feeling that way, the more vigorously he/she is likely to justify it (and the more vigorously you will feel the need to defend, and on and on).  Your partner is who he or she is.  All you can do is say to yourself, “My partner feels this way. I do not want him/her to feel this way, but I can’t change his/her feelings. The only thing I can do is to try to look at what I may be doing to contribute to/cause this.”  If you say to your partner, “Oh, I don’t want you to feel that way, I will certainly try to work on that,” it sure takes the wind out of the sails of any argument that was brewing.  Even if you still believe your partner is being oversensitive or wrong, you do not have to agree with him/her to acknowledge his/her feelings and let him/her know you will do what you can to avoid his/her feeling that way in the future.

3.      Take an honest look at yourself, taking into account the feedback you are receiving from your partner and change your behavior.

This is often hard to do.  Instead of focusing on your partner’s behavior each partner must turn the spotlight onto himself or herself.

Another example may help to drive this point home:

Partner 1 says to partner 2: “You are so critical.  All you do is criticize me!” (blames, attacks)

Partner 2: “I am not critical, you are so oversensitive!”  (defends, counterattacks)

Instead Try:

Partner 1: “I feel like I can’t do anything right.  I feel hurt and unappreciated when you don’t notice what I do well.”

Partner 2: “Ok, I am sorry, I will try to tell you more how much I really do appreciate what you do.”

(In order to make this more understandable I will assign genders to partner 1 and 2 but either role can be played by either gender!) Partner 2 does not have to agree with partner 1 that she does not appreciate him or that she is critical.  She may still believe he is oversensitive.  Even if partner 1 grew up with overly critical parents and is  especially sensitive to criticism, this does not change anything.  Partner 1 is who he is and partner 2 still has an obligation to look at what she may be doing to contribute to partner 1 feeling unappreciated.  Partner 1 of course should also work on his sensitivity to criticism…but nothing will change as long as each partner is waiting for the other to change.  Change can only happen when each partner is willing to turn the microscope onto themselves and examine what their parts in the relationship issues are and make appropriate changes in themselves.

Another interesting thing about relationships is that there often seems to be a finite amount of anxiety or other emotion around a certain topic.  For example, if one partner is carrying all the anxiety about finances, the other partner often seems much less concerned about finances.  The more the worried partner can let go of the anxiety the more the other partner begins to worry and the more the partners meet in the middle.  And conversely, the more the relaxed partner can worry; the more relaxed the worried partner can become.  This can be true of many different emotions about many different topics.

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