One of the more enduring myths around marriage and relationships is that all couples fight. In fact, when a discussion escalates from a cooperative dialogue into an argument, it signals a fracture in the partnership that may be either acute, or more abiding.
The heart of relationship lies in communication. It is a barometer of intimacy, social and emotional availability, respect, compassion and the general connectedness that defines the quality of a relationship. When communication breaks down, particularly within a context of aggression, it is symbolic of a more complex and subtle rift in the partnership.
So, why do we argue? More to the point, why do we raise our voices? Violence, even verbal violence, in the face of confrontation is an expression of our social and emotional limitations. When we hit a wall and can no longer see options, we lash out: at things, at people, sometimes even at ourselves. That lashing out can clearly take on a number of forms, although our first line of defensiveness (not a typo) when it comes to relationships seems to be harsh language and raised voices.
One of the benefits of recognizing when a situation is escalating is that it provides us with an opportunity for growth. Wait…what? Exactly. If our escalation is a consequence of our limitations, then our ability to recognize that escalation and rein it in presents us with the opportunity to dig in to those limitations, explore them and evolve both as individuals and as a couple.
One thing to consider here is that not arguing shouldn’t suggest not communicating. Conflict is a necessary part of every relationship; we can’t have light without darkness. That conflict, however, better serves us when it is approached creatively. Creativity here is intended in the most basic sense of the word; to build something, rather than tear it down. Stuffing, avoiding and silence are every bit as destructive as a screaming match. The former is more like water working its way into the foundation of your house, rather than a bulldozer coming through it.
Central to cooperative communication is identifying the source of the conflict. You and your partner may be quarreling over money, but the conflict might be about safety. Similarly, you may be squabbling over the housework, but the source of the conflict is about the quality of your environment, which reflects respect for each other. Once the source of the conflict is established, we must introduce compassion for both ourselves and our partner. What that means is holding space and recognizing where the vulnerabilities for each of you lie.
Another aspect of cooperative communication is recognizing how we argue. When the source of conflict is personalized and assigned to our partner—a variation of what most of us think of as the blame game—it creates divisiveness, rending a tear in the fabric of the relationship. When the source of conflict is thoughtfully attributed to external factors, there is room to discuss how those factors are impacting the situation closer to home.
There is also the perceived nature of our relationship to consider. When couples view their relationship as something monolithic and unwavering, they are much less likely to be as successful as couples who view their relationship as something organic and evolving. Interestingly, this applies particularly to the notion of soulmates, where those who believe their relationship is meant to be tend to be less inclined to invest themselves in cultivating it. On the other hand, those who view their relationship as a journey leading through an ever evolving landscape—something that necessitates cooperative communication—are more likely to find themselves in a context that is more positive and stable over the long term.
Our title is taken from the Sufi poet Rumi. Although his words speak to the spirit of this post, a more fitting perspective might be found in the unattributed quote, “Watch your thoughts, for they become words; words become actions; actions become habits; habit becomes character; character becomes destiny.”
We are not only the architects of our lives, but the architects of the elements that make up those lives; this includes our relationships. The quality of those relationships is revealed in the character and intention we bring to them. Our words, and the manner in which we deliver them, illuminate our intention and scribe the character of the path we design for ourselves, our partner and our relationship. That said, it seems so as we speak, so shall we live.
© 2014 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved
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Fincham, F., Harold, G., & Gano-Philips, S. (2000). The longitudinal association between attributions and marital satisfaction. Journal of Family Psychology, 14(27), 267-285. doi: 10.10371/0893-318.104.22.1687
Lee, S., & Schwarz, N. (2014). Framing love: When it hurts to think we were made for each other. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 54, 61-67. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2014.04.007