by Liana Laverentz
Three things to decide before having a disagreement with someone:
1. Decide what you are angry about.
Sounds simple, I know. Most people probably think this is a given. Of course I know what I’m angry about! What do you think I am, some kind of idiot?
No, but most arguments, would you believe, are NOT about what the participants think they are arguing about.
For instance, your partner (date, lover, husband, wife, sibling, roommate, parent, significant other) puts you down, or makes a joke at your expense in front of others at a social gathering. At the time, you laugh right along with everybody else. But inside, whether you acknowledge it or not, you are hurt. It hurts when someone makes fun of you, whether you admit to it or not. But if you admit it, you fear you might sound like a crybaby, or be called weak, or ‘too sensitive.’ So you laugh along with everyone else, then seethe on the ride home.
You decide to have a little snack, do some emotional eating to soothe your hurt feelings. Some chocolate would be nice. Hmmmm… Maybe those leftover brownies, or a cookie or two—or sixteen. Some milk would go along with those cookies really well. You open the refrigerator. You’re out of milk. It was your partner’s/teenager’s/roommate’s turn to pick some up at the store. He forgot. Again.
You light into him about how there’s no milk and somehow it morphs into how he never brings home the milk when it’s his turn, and how, in fact, he never closes up the cereal boxes either, or puts the dishes in the dishwasher, and oh, yeah—he never puts the seat down.
You never once mention you got your feelings hurt at the party when he told everyone how you walked out of the Wal-Mart restroom with toilet paper trailing behind you.
Because to do that, would mean admitting your feelings had been hurt, and, depending on the type of relationship you are in, giving over that kind of information could guarantee more of the same. Or worse, indifference.
Fighting over the milk is a lot easier. But it’s not really what it’s about, is it?
2. Decide who you’re angry with.
This one seems like a no-brainer, too. But it’s trickier than you may think. In the previous example, you were definitely angry with your partner. Your partner/sibling said something that hurt you and you were angry, even if you fought about something else entirely. This time, however, you’re angry with someone else. Maybe someone you can’t get angry with, for some reason or another. A parent you’ve never been able to stand up to, your boss, a sick relative you are caring for and can’t possibly get angry with, because how would that make you look?
Let’s go with the clerk at the wedding dress store. You’re already frazzled with a million details to see to. You go to try on the dress, and—it’s the wrong dress! Holy moly, what are you going to do? The wedding is three weeks away, and it takes six to get a dress in, and if you get angry at the store clerk/manager and make a scene, somehow your order may get ‘lost’ altogether—at the very least, she won’t be going out of her way to get you the right dress in the right size on time—and there’s no place for you to vent your disappointment and fear that you won’t have a dress for the wedding.
So what do you do? You meet your fiancé for lunch. You’re fired up, with no one to shoot. He arrives ten minutes late, having been held over by a boss who is famous for tacking on last minute demands or requests. Now he has to figure out how to get the project he’s working on, plus another one, done by the weekend.
But he doesn’t want to let you down, so he meets you for lunch, if a bit late. You blast him for being late the minute he sits down. He gets defensive and says it’s not like he was as late as you were last week when you met at the stupid cake shop to pick out the cake. Oh, so now your cake is stupid, and by extension, you are, too.
You’re not mad at each other, so why are you fighting? The easiest thing to do is take frustrations with others out on the people closest to you—because they are supposed to ‘understand’ and love you. It’s part of the unspoken rules of being in a close relationship, and that includes relationships with parents and siblings and children.
But nobody understands being attacked for something totally unrelated to the real problem, especially if they aren’t part of the real problem. It leaves you both feeling hurt and sad and bewildered and unsatisfied, because you never discussed your anger with the person you were really upset with.
So, make sure the person you are arguing with is the person you are upset with.
3. Decide what’s more important: Being right or strengthening the relationship.
Contrary to popular belief, conflict is not something to be avoided at all costs. Conflict can bring people closer together, as they work together to resolve the conflict. Ever heard of couples who never fight? Those are couples who never grow or change. They’re stuck in fantasy land, and when something comes along to test the foundation of their relationship, and it will—Life has an absolute way of doing that—the relationship will dissolve like a sand castle when the tide comes in.
Hardship and conflict are what cement a relationship, not what tears it apart. This doesn’t mean you should seek out every opportunity you can to argue/disagree with your partner and make their and your life more difficult. It means when the tough times come, and they will—the loss of a parent or child, the loss of a job—or simply changing jobs/careers--a major illness to weather, a two-week vacation with the in-laws, a home remodeling project, someone absconds with your retirement savings—if you haven’t learned to fight fair and work through conflict properly—the relationship is doomed.
And it’s doomed whether you stay in it or split up. We all know tons of people in miserable marriages. You don’t have to be alone to be lonely.
So what’s more important? Being right, or figuring out how to resolve the problem and preserve the relationship? Love isn’t love if you have to keep score.
This is not the same as keeping quiet to preserve the peace. That is something else entirely—intimidation at the least, abuse at the worst. This is about making a commitment to put the relationship first and work together to find a compromise for all parties concerned whenever possible. Compromise isn’t part of an abusive relationship. Ever.
What I’m talking about today is making the commitment to see the argument through, for the sake of the relationship, to strengthen it, not destroy it.
To do that, you need to set aside a time when both parties are calm and willing to talk. Never argue in the heat of the moment. I know, I know, it is just so tempting to tell that sorry so-and-so just what you think about this, that or the other—but it’s never the right choice to make, believe me. Just the easiest.
And the least effective.
What you need to do when you are upset is walk away. Not walk out. I didn’t say walk out. I said take a time out. Go for a walk, go to your room, find something to do that soothes your soul. Then, when you’re feeling settled, come back and ask, “Can we talk?”
If it’s important to you, you will, and if it’s important to the other party, they will, too.
So, once you’ve agreed to talk, establish the ground rules that if either of you gets upset you’ll take a time out and try again later, because you want the relationship to work.
But before you meet for this little sit-down session, make sure you know 1) what you’re mad about and 2) who you’re mad at and why. This is something you can figure out during your walk away and take a time-out period.
Make sure the person you’re talking to is someone who can do something about the situation, or you’re both just wasting your time and breath. Venting is nice. Venting is fun. Venting feels good. But it never gets anything resolved.
And do you really want to have the same argument over and over and over again, just in a different disguise?
Not me. I’ve got more fun things to do with my time.
Thin Ice (NJRW Golden Leaf and EPPIE Award Winner)
Available in e-book, print, and on Kindle
Ashton's Secret (coming in 2009)