Reframing Your Way out of Old Arguments

How beliefs lock us into the same old fights.

Posted Jul 26, 2019

Source: Tommaso79/Shutterstock

The fictional hero Tom Sawyer was highly skilled at reframing a situation. When Sawyer was forced to spend a holiday whitewashing a fence, his friends teased him, because he had to work while they could play. He turned the tables on his friends, however, by redefining the task: “It’s not every day a boy gets a chance to whitewash a fence.” Soon his friends were paying him for the privilege of white-washing the fence.

We don’t just deal with facts. We interpret the facts, and we interpret the facts within a context, which we create by how we “frame” the situation. A frame is the underlying beliefs and assumptions on which we base our interpretations.

Tom Sawyer’s friends started out with the “frame” that white-washing the fence was an unpleasant task. Tom convinced them it was an honor and a privilege. Reframed in this manner, they paid him for the honor of white-washing the fence.

Some couples have the same fight over and over, year after year. And as long as they continue to interpret the situation in exactly the same way, the fight will go on and on, often with exactly the same lines. If you don’t want the same argument over and over, one or both of you have to change how you frame the situation.

Usually, acting based on unconscious framing of situations is valuable and saves time. But it shapes our behavior, and not always in ways that serve us well. Old ways of framing your experiences may be locking you into constraints that are not necessary. We can all be caught in frames that do not permit us to explore and utilize our own abilities to best advantage. These old frames could even be responsible for an impasse between you and your partner.

Every now and then, John goes hunting with some old friends. When he returns from the trip, his wife, Theresa, asks him a whole lot of questions about what happened on the trip. John hates all the questions, believing that “she is checking up on me.”

He quickly becomes resentful and defensive—“I haven’t done anything to justify your suspicions”—and they almost always get in a fight. John has gotten so he is almost ready to give up the hunting trips, because it isn’t worth the bad fight afterward. But then he resents the idea of giving up the hunting trips.

John has framed Theresa’s questions as “she’s checking up on me.” He interprets her behavior entirely in the context of what he sees as her jealousy and suspicion. He doesn’t realize that how he communicates when he feels he is under suspicion is so resentful and angry that he is contributing to the communication problems. Theresa, for her part, seems unable to skip the questions. Given John’s way of framing Theresa’s behavior, there seems to be no escaping a hurtful fight.

But is there no other way that John can frame the interaction? What if he framed Theresa’s questions as, “She’s feeling insecure and wants to know where she stands with me.” Certainly, if that were true, the appropriate behavior for John would be to act loving and reassuring. If she’s feeling insecure, his defensive reaction makes her more fearful.

In reality, “she’s feeling insecure” explains the facts of the situation just as well as “she’s checking up on me.” But if John re-interprets the situation as “she’s feeling insecure,” his behavior changes. It may change just enough so that they have a happy coming together, rather than a fight.

John has “reframed” the situation. Reframing is shifting the perspective within which we experience a situation. As this example shows, the same “facts” can be viewed in a different frame in such a way that the facts themselves seem to change.

If you and your partner have a continuing struggle because your personal reality frames the situation in a way that makes your partner’s position unacceptable, you may be able to break the impasse by reframing the situation. There may be alternative ways of understanding the situation which can accommodate both of your emotional realities.

Criteria for Reframing

How we interpret things, what things “mean,” is not “out there,” external to us. We make meaning in the world around us by taking a limited number of facts and assembling them to make sense of things. We create the meanings of events by how we interpret things, and we interpret things within the frame of experience, the roles we play, and family dynamics.

We’re not talking about conning ourselves into a new interpretation or lying to ourselves. But what if there is an alternative set of meanings that explains the circumstances as well as the meanings that we’ve always used in the past? What if seeing someone as thrifty is at least as good an interpretation as seeing them as stingy?

A principle criterion for considering a new frame is that the new frame must offer at least as good an interpretation of the facts as the old frame. It must be as or more believable.

Reframing may break an emotional impasse, either within yourself or with another person. In my earlier post on values, I asked you to do some reframing when you analyzed differences over you and your partner's values.

I asked you to look for the positive value your partner supports, rather than your partner’s apparent opposition to your values. You may want your children to enjoy personal freedom, for example, but your husband is concerned about safety and security. Reframing starts by recognizing that he is for safety and security—something you support as well—rather than he is against personal freedom.

When we are in a dispute, we tend to see the other person as an opponent, possibly even as the enemy. But if we recognize that each of us is supporting a positive value—both personal freedom and security are good—it reframes the argument.

Reframing is used extensively in various forms of therapy. As psychotherapist Mark Tyrell puts it:

“…When someone is stuck in a particular thinking style and unconsciously assumes that their (limited, negative) view is the only perspective, then a major shift can occur when another wider, more flexible, and positive view is unexpectedly and unarguably demonstrated to them. After such a reframe moment, it is usually impossible for them to maintain the problem behavior in the same old limiting way.”[1]

This is not to suggest that simply arguing for an alternative frame is likely to be successful. A direct, confrontational argument is likely to meet resistance. People who have a firm frame of reference are likely to dismiss or filter out reframes.

The point of the reframe is to slip past the individual’s frame of reference and talk to the emotional brain, not just the thinking brain. This is often done by using metaphors, or when an individual is in a very relaxed state (some therapists use hypnosis). If you are working together as a couple, this may sound like: “You see it this way . . . and I see it this way . . . let’s find a way to make this work for both of us.”

Examples of Reframing

One way we see reframing in action is to look at how we’ve reframed our pasts. For example, people sometimes have life experiences which completely disrupt their expected career path or destroy a business or professional practice. Often when you talk to them a few years later, they will tell you, “It was the best thing that happened to me,” and go on to tell you how their current success could not have happened without the disruption of their earlier plans. At the time, though, it was hard to frame the event as anything but a failure or extremely damaging.

Closer to home, many teenage children see parents as “mean,” over-controlling, the thing that stands in the way of their being socially acceptable. Often this is not reframed until you have children of your own and reframe your parent behaviors as loving and protective.

I had an important experience with reframing early in my career. I had the opportunity to work closely for several years with a very distinguished man, who became an important mentor to me. The relationship ended, though, when he engaged in several behaviors that I found very hurtful.

I chewed on that hurt off and on for a couple of years. But finally, I asked myself, “How did he perceive the behaviors in which I engaged?”

To my chagrin, I found that there were several things I had done that he could have interpreted as disloyal or unsupportive. I didn’t see what I had done as justifying the destruction of the relationship. But once I understood I had contributed to the situation, I was able to let go almost immediately of grinding and grinding emotionally on the events. I changed my understanding of the situation by changing the frame to take his perceptions into account.

People are not always receptive to a new frame, even if it would make their life easier. The new frame must make sense to the perceiver. It has to be consistent with the facts and must fit into the perceiver’s overall approach to life. If there has been pain and hurt, the new frame must account for and acknowledge that pain.

What You Can Do to Reframe a Situation:

There are a number of different approaches to reframing.              

1. Deep Conversations

The dynamics of fights often block real conversations about why people feel the way they do. Schedule some time with each other to talk in a non-judgmental, accepting way, about your “frames.”

Did you have childhood experiences surrounding these issues? What were the “family rules” about these issues? What do you fear would happen if you don’t stay within your frame?

The critical thing will be your agreement to learn about each other’s frames without judging or criticizing your partner’s frame. You are exploring foreign territory. So the issue is to understand the territory, not judge it. Use some of the Active Listening skills discussed in earlier posts.

2. Talk Therapy

Most of talk therapy is about understanding old events differently. Reframing can be facilitated greatly by working with a skilled therapist.

3. Journaling

Many people have found it helpful to maintain a journal, a summary of the day’s events with a particular emphasis on how you feel about those events. This journal can include the time of the mood or thought, the source of it, the extent or intensity, and how you responded to it, among other factors.

Often, when you go back and read past journal entries, your frame becomes very visible. This may give you insights into what needs to change.

4. Think the Script Out Until the End

Push the frame to its logical conclusion. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Will you lose your job, marriage, savings? How would you cope if these events occurred? What would you do? What could you do?

Most of the time, when you predict a worse possible outcome, you’ll find you will survive. Somehow, facing the worst possible situation significantly reduces the fear and anxiety associated with that possibility. It may be unpleasant, but you’ll still be standing at the end of it.

Having looked at the worst possible outcome, you are now free to get on with living. Rarely does the worst possible outcome occur. If it does, you are prepared for it.

Reframing Exercise

Here’s an exercise you might use to help you reframe your situation:

1. Identify the frame—the attitude or belief that is limiting your options—which is bothering you. For example, maybe you are afraid of speaking in public.

2. Find the positive purpose or intention behind the frame. In this example, a fear of public speaking may really be protecting you from criticism or ridicule.

3. Identify three other ways to satisfy that positive intention, but which do not have the negative consequences of the original frame. In this example, you could use one of these alternatives:

  • Frame A: I’ve really blown some presentations, mostly when I didn’t prepare well. But I’m also capable of being an effective speaker.
  • Frame B: I need more experience and training at public speaking, and I’m going to get it.
  • Frame C: I don’t really know what I’m capable of.

4. Have the part of yourself that argues on behalf of the old frame agree to consider the three new frames.

5. Look for experiences you’ve had that support any of the three new frames.

6. Check: Does any other part of yourself object to the choices?

7. Continue to look for experiences that support the new frame. Begin to build a new narrative about you and public speaking.


[1] Tyrell, Mark, New Ways of Seeing: The Art of Therapeutic Reframing, Uncommon Knowledge, 2014, pg. xii.