What is your argument REALLY about?

Why do we keep having stupid arguments?

Death by a thousand cuts – that’s what those recurring, seemingly insignificant arguments might be doing to your relationship. Clients so often tell me, “We argue about the stupidest things!” Well, maybe. Or, maybe what you are actually arguing about is something else, something important, but you are unaware of it. Here’s an example: a couple argues regularly, over a period of years, about which way the toilet paper roll should be installed. There is much googling and asking of opinions, pontificating on the original plan by the inventor of the t.p. roll, and even some passive aggressive switching of the direction in the wee hours of the night. But does this argument over what is “right” really get to the heart of what’s happening? I don’t think so.

What the heck is happening? What are these fights really about?

Let’s look at what is actually happening.  Your arguments are attempts to get your partner to care. Either you have a preference, but you are not openly asking for what it to be met. Or you are not being open and vulnerable, seeking your  partner’s cooperation. Instead, you do the opposite, couching things in criticisms and supposed facts. Or, on the other side, you might be the one feeling criticized, micromanaged, annoyed, or cajoled.  Instead of asking your partner to stop insulting you, you find yourself literally arguing about TOILET PAPER! Why does this happen? I think it’s lack of awareness both of our own hurts and desires, and, more importantly, not asking for what we really want on an emotional level.

What’s emotional about toilet paper?

Nothing, of course. At least I don’t think so, but that might be another blog. What is emotional here is the feeling of wanting to be cared for or considered.  When we have a preference, it’s ok to ask for it to be considered. Instead of starting arguments, it’s kind and respectful to your yourself and your partner just to admit you have a preference and ask for their help in fulfilling it. Why don’t people do this? Perhaps we are afraid we won’t get what we want, so we “make the case” or worse, insult the other person as if they are flawed. If you’re on the receiving end of the criticism, it’s healthy to speak up when you feel insulted, nagged and cajoled. Too often what we have instead is defensiveness, counter-point, or counter-attack. This leads either nowhere, or to a kind of relationship purgatory.

A way forward:

Awareness is key. Take note if you are suddenly googling the definition of things, asking friends and relatives if they agree with your “side” or having years’ long arguments over the “right” way of doing something. Or worse, saying “I was raised to do it this way,” which insults not only your partner, but their parents! Asking for what you’d like is the first step, as is sharing when you feel criticized or insulted. This cuts through to the deeper issue, which is the importance of the relationship itself and how you treat each other. Also, importantly: if your partner goes along with your preference, it’s nice to acknowledge it. Rather than feeling satisfied that they now know the “right” way to do things thanks to your efforts to educate them, instead thank them for caring about YOU. (If they’d prefer not to, again, at least you will have honestly acknowledged it.  Also now you have a chance to consider their preference. Better to have an ongoing negotiation about preference than a false and pointless ongoing debate about toilet paper. Because that is really stupid.)

margie-bio Margie Wheelhouse is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.  She helps couples in Springfield, Chicago and throughout Illinois build great relationships and repair broken ones.  To schedule or send her an email, click here.