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Rob Pascale and Lou Primavera Ph.D.

Do You Ever Argue Like This?

Going tit for tat goes nowhere.

In a previous article we talked about how arguing is not only normal, but is also quite healthy for a marriage. Conflict is the primary vehicle for change. If we’re unhappy with something our partner does or doesn’t do, only by confronting them can we give ourselves a chance to make our needs understood. And give our partner some direction to satisfy our needs, if they choose to take it. Arguments also make partners come together -- if they try to fix their problems as a couple, and they’re successful at it, they’re likely to feel more bonded to each other.

In fact, couples who never fight might have bigger problems than those who argue regularly. The relationship may lack trust, so partners are uncomfortable being honest and candid with each other. Or they may work hard at keeping their interactions at superficial levels, for precisely the reason to avoid conflicts. For whatever reason, an unhappy partner in a conflict-avoiding relationship may not have many avenues for making his or her marriage better.

More important than how often couples argue is how they behave toward each other when they do. We should point out that arguing is only helpful if you and your partner are effective at it, and by that we mean the argument achieves the straightforward objectives of solving a problem and doing it efficiently. Very often couples who have chronic problems can’t get those resolved because their communication patterns don’t allow them to address their problems.

There are lots of things that determine whether or not you have a good communication style. Here we’ll focus on one of the more common ineffective patterns -- reciprocation. Rather than talk about what you should do, we decided to use a real-life example which clearly illustrations how reciprocity gets you nowhere:

Lou and Maria had just arrived at their counseling session, and it was pretty obvious they were angry at each other. Since neither would speak, they were asked what was wrong, and they relayed the story this way.

Lou started it off, pointing out that he had to leave work early to pick up Maria, and she kept him waiting for about 25 minutes, even though she knew he at arrived. It turned out that something had come up just as she was about to walk out the door, although Lou didn’t know that. When he was asked to describe why he was still angry, Lou turned to Maria and said, “You think I have nothing better to do but sit in the car and wait for you. You always do that, and you don’t see how inconsiderate you are. It doesn’t even occur to you that having to leave work just to pick you up is a major imposition.” Maria then responded with, “You think I was just fooling around and taking my time just to piss you off? It never occurs to you that I couldn’t help it, because you never give me the benefit of the doubt.”

Maria then continued; “Besides, no matter what I ask you to do, it’s always a major imposition. I can’t ever ask you to do even the smallest favor for me.” Then it was Lou’s turn; “What do you mean? I’m always doing things for you! I spend half my life helping you out in one way or another.” Maria came back with, “Really? I can’t remember the last time you did something nice for me that you didn’t make me feel guilty for doing it. I swear you’re more considerate of the dog than of me.”

Lou was not to be outdone. He retorted with a list of things he had done for Maria, and then said, “I do a lot more for you than you ever do for me.” Maria then went through her own list of things, including cooking and cleaning and taking care of the children, to which she then added, “Besides, if I didn’t do this stuff, it wouldn’t get done. You just can’t wait to go out and play golf when you’re not working.” Lou then came back with, “When’s the last time I played golf? I haven’t played in three weeks. You can’t even give me a few minutes to relax when I’m not killing myself at that job.”

They continued along the same path for quite a while. The argument was supposed to be about Maria being 25 minutes late, but they never discussed that and so they never had an opportunity to come to an understanding about it. Instead they covered a lot of things they dislike in their marriage and make them feel resentful toward each other. In reality, their argument was never really about the 25 minutes, but about everything else that made each of them unhappy.

Responding to a partner’s grievance, e.g., “You do this,” with our own complaint, “Well you do that,” takes the disagreement off the original topic and away from finding a solution. Furthermore, these kinds of confrontations almost always escalate, and intensely so, as partners present each other’s shortcomings and mistakes, sometimes going as far back in their relationship as they can remember. It’s as if we store all the wrongs done by our partners in a big bag, and then take them out and use them to counter-attack when they bring up something negative that we’ve said or done.

Going tit for tat is an easy, but dangerous trap to fall into. When we reciprocate, we have essentially decided that solving a problem isn’t entirely what we’re looking to do. We want to prove that we’re at least as good to our partners as they are to us, or we’re using each confrontation as an opportunity to express the anger or resentment that has built up over the years. It’s only after partners step away from each other for a while and calm down that they might be able to tackle the original cause of their argument.

As mentioned at the start, a key component of effective communication is efficiency. That means the argument is not drawn out longer than necessary, it doesn’t move on to topics that have nothing to do with the original problem, and it doesn’t escalate to personal attacks or a rehashing of past disappointments and resentments. Reciprocity violates every one of these.

Note that reciprocity, as every ineffective communication style, not only interferes with solutions, but it also produces negative feelings that linger. In the above example, you can sense the emotions are getting stronger and the words are becoming more and more emotionally charged as the disagreement continues. Consequently, both partners usually feel less satisfied after such an argument because they haven’t made any progress toward fixing the problem, but rather have actually accumulated more reasons for resentment that they might then use in their next disagreement. It’s not hard to imagine that Lou will say at some point: “You are so damned inconsiderate! How about when you make me wait in the car when I have to pick you up from somewhere?”

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About the Author

Rob Pascale, Ph.D., is a research psychologist. Lou Primavera, Ph.D., is the dean of the School of Health Sciences at Touro Colleges. They are the authors of Making Marriage Work.