Fighting Fear

Confronting phobias and other fears

The Proper Way to Argue

The purposes and pitfalls of arguing

Arguments are not undesirable. All the way up and down the animal kingdom, animals argue. They  bark, bellow, growl, and spit at each other. They are attempting to influence the other animal, who is often of the same species. “Stay away,” they are saying, or “stop doing that,” or “give me that.” Even birds, who seem to be twittering cheerfully in the morning, are, in fact, twittering angrily at other birds of the same species, warning them off their territory. And the noise they make works. Studies suggest that the bird that twitters loudest (usually the bird that was there first) ends up with the territory. Arguments are a way of settling disputes without anyone getting injured. Human beings argue, but not always so effectively.

Some time ago, I treated a woman who had joined an organization of former psychiatric patients. This organization was helpful in some ways; but they promoted an idea with which I disagreed strongly. They treated anger as if it were an unwanted and undesirable emotion. When the patients got angry at something, they were told to count to 10, until the feeling went away. It was as if they thought anger, which is a universal reaction to frustrating circumstances, was unhealthy.

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The effect of this program on my patient was to render her speechless much of the time, and impotent. She spoke in a monotone. She even moved slowly. She seemed wooden and distant. When she was among her family, she was largely ignored by them. Provoked, she did not raise her voice. She became increasingly distressed as her two children and her husband carried on conversations around her without speaking or listening to her. Finally, one morning at breakfast, when she found she could not squeeze one carefully modulated word into the conversation, she kicked the table over. They did not understand why she was angry. Whatever the reason, It seemed to them she was overreacting. They did not realize she was reacting to frustrations that had gone on for some time.

Something similar, although perhaps not so dramatic, occurs whenever anyone systematically refrains from getting angry. People say. “It’s not worth fighting about” or “I didn’t want to make things worse.” There are, of course, times—at work, for example—when someone cannot afford to get angry. And there are other times—getting cut off on a highway, for instance—when it is not appropriate to get angry because there is no one there to try to influence. I do not recommend making obscene gestures to strangers on a highway. But if a family member or a friend systematically does something to make a person angry, and the angry person does not express that feeling, sooner or later that angry person will blow up over some seemingly small thing, and the other person will not understand why.

People enter into small and large arguments all the time. It is inevitable that a husband and wife, for instance, argue from time to time. The purpose of the argument is to express clearly how they feel about whatever is being disputed. If someone is vaguely annoyed, he/she should sound vaguely annoyed. If he/she is enraged, that person should sound enraged. Whenever someone always speaks in a monotone, or is always shouting, for that matter, the other person will not know exactly how his/her partner really feels. Everyone should have a graded response. A spouse in a good relationship is likely to compromise or give in in an argument in which that person’s partner feels very strongly about the matter. The next time around, the partner who gives in is more likely to get his/her way. A big argument is when both partners feel strongly about a matter.

It is not reasonable for someone to expect another person at the end of an argument to say “I see now that you are right.” Arguments do not end that way. The purpose of the argument is not to get one’s way, but to express clearly how one feels. In a good relationship, even big arguments are set aside within a few minutes. And life goes on.

There are bad ways of arguing:

  1. One person tries to dominate the other. This has nothing to do with saying how strongly someone feels about something; it has to do with establishing who is the boss. No one should try to out-shout the other. Naturally, resentment is built into and comes out of this kind of argument.
  2. Name-calling. No one in a family should call another family member a name. Insulting someone is not part of a good argument. Certainly, no one should spit on a spouse! (I have come across three such cases.)
  3. No one should physically threaten someone else, or scare somebody by seeming to be out of control, let’s say, by punching a wall, or throwing things.
  4. People should not bring up the past, or attack the other person’s character, or compare the other person to some other disliked member of the family. “You’re just like your mother.”
  5. No one should refuse to do something he has agreed previously to do.
  6. Nagging is undesirable. If the partner knows how the spouse feels, that is all that is necessary, even if the outcome of a particular argument seems unsatisfactory.
  7. Finally, no one should sulk. Sulking is designed to punish the other person. People who sulk tend to sulk repeatedly. A spouse will go through different stages over the years. First he/she will try to find out what is bothering the other person and usually try to sort the argument out. After a while, the partner is inclined just to let the sulker stew for a while. Finally, most spouses get to the point where they do not know what is bothering their spouse, and they do not much care.

The same rules apply more or less to other people who are not married, and even, with some limitations, to arguments with kids.

(c) Fredric Neuman 2012 Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog

Fredric Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital.

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