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The Art of the Argument

Have a productive argument, not a pointless row.

Why Can't You Shut Up? How We Ruin Relationships—How Not To

By: Anthony Wolf, Ph.D. (Ballantine)

The Promise

Fight clean: Disagree without bickering, sniping, rehashing or destroying your relationship.

One of the greatest threats to satisfying relationships, says Anthony Wolf, a practicing clinical psychologist, is our overwhelming need to be right when we disagree. This innate characteristic, which he defines as our "baby self," can damage or destroy relationships, especially with those closest to us. In his latest book, Why Can't You Shut Up? How We Ruin Relationships—How Not To , Wolf shows how we go wrong: by not letting go when we're not getting our way.

The Test

I decided to try out Wolf's theories on a recent dispute with my wife.

Our children, ages 7 and 10, love watching television. If allowed, they'd sit in front of the set until their brains melted. While I try to get them to stick to time limits, my wife is more lax about enforcing these rules. I worry they're becoming TV addicts and she thinks I should cut them some slack.

But then she started letting them watch American Idol , which meant they stayed up past bedtime two school nights a week. Rather than a levelheaded conversation addressing this particular difference of opinion, the disagreement escalated into a nasty spat that dragged in other conflicts and past grievances. Filled with righteousness, I wanted not only to prove her guilty of this offense, but also of other outstanding crimes and misdemeanors, such as covert adjustments to various household budgets, using her car as a moving trash bin and helping the kids think of chocolate as a kind of daily vitamin.

Wolf's advice is to stay on subject. This was about our children and TV, not whether she overindulges them or I'm too strict or who needs more therapy. So we both had to resist claiming who was right and who was wrong, which he says is a lose/lose situation.

When my wife and I focused on the issue at hand, we realized we're both concerned about the kids turning into tube zombies. We agreed to have them watch most of their favorite programs on TiVo, eliminating commercials and cutting viewing time by 25 percent.

Wolf also says it's not always necessary to resolve an argument, but that it must end—that is to say, it's essential to let it drop. My wife and I both had to let go of the tempting but unproductive desire to get in the last word. Instead, we made sure that we each got to speak our mind. After that, the discussion was over.

While we haven't totally resolved this issue, we've had our say, listened and disengaged. Wolf reminds us that successful arguing isn't about being right as much as feeling all right about the outcome.

The Verdict

Wolf offers helpful insights (along with wry humor) on managing our closest relationships. Although there aren't any major revelations, you can't really argue with such practical advice.