Chapter 3.Relationships: Conflicts


How To Have Fewer Bitter Arguments in Love

There are couples that seem never to argue. Their relationships are marked by enormous outward politeness; they say thank you a lot; they make each other cups of tea; they can look rather horrified when there’s a mention of a squabble in someone else’s life. It’s understandable if they’re privately a little pleased with themselves.

But surface harmony isn’t, in reality, any reliable sign of health in love because it’s impossible to try to merge two lives without regularly encountering deep sources of incompatibility. A lack of arguments is more likely to be a sign that we have given up caring than a superhuman achievement of maturity.

The goal isn’t, therefore, to do away with arguments – but to find our way towards their more fruitful variety. We need to learn to argue well, rather than not argue at all.

©Flickr/Tom Driggers

What then are some of the ideas that might help us have better arguments?

1. The single greatest idea that can help us to argue more constructively is to remind ourselves publicly that we are – both of us – by nature deeply imperfect and at points quite plainly mad. The enemy of mature arguments is self-righteousness: the sense that we might be beyond fault and that our partner must be either wicked for making a mistake or unfairly critical in alleging that we have been guilty of one. It is of immense benefit if relationships can be conducted under the assumed truth that both participants are idiotic, mentally wobbly, quite flawed in manifold ways – and constantly in need of forgiveness. It’s an implicit faith in our own perfection that turns us into monsters.

2. People concede points not when they’re aggressively told they’re wrong; but when they feel loved. We get stubborn and withhold the truth when we’re scared and suspect that the person challenging us hates us, means us harm, can never forgive us – and is perhaps about to leave us. It is indispensable to preface every criticism with an assurance of our ongoing love.

3. People change very slowly, and seldom when they are harassed into doing so. We must strive not to be desperate for change. We must make our peace with the idea that they won’t evolve as we would wish on the timescale that would suit us; we should be rather pessimistic about human nature in order to encounter one or two grounds for hope.

4. We shouldn’t aggravate our frustration by a sense that we have been uniquely cursed in ending up in this relationship. Of course they are annoying. Everyone in the world would be equally tricky at times and often probably a lot worse. The specifics of why we’re in an irritating dispute may be local but that we are in one is a universal destiny. We should laugh darkly at the human tragedy.

©Flickr/Tina Leggio

5. Our partner is only ever frightened, worried and not thinking straight – rather than bad. Just like us, they carry a lot of emotional baggage: they have been shaped by their complex and at moments very troubled history. Much of what they do isn’t directly about us but is a way of coping with difficulties that came into their life long before we met them.  

6. Choose the moment. We can be under the illusion that arguing is an exchange of intellectual ideas. But it’s largely a process reliant on our emotions and is decisively influenced by such easily-overlooked matters as how much sleep we’ve had, how much we’ve drunk and what time it is. As a general rule, wait till tomorrow.

7. Don’t let the relationship die from misplaced ‘politeness’ or embarrassment. Dare to name the problem, however shocking it sounds. As long as it’s been carefully wrapped in layers of love, the truth is normally bearable to those who care for us.

8. It doesn’t matter if we’re right. We must be prepared to forego all the pleasures of proving a point. We’re not not trying to ‘win’ but to live as happily as possible with another person who is, in the end, our best friend and on our side.

Despite this, we will still have furious rows of course, we will call each other the worst things, slam doors and cry. It’s hugely normal. The capacity to be horrible to a partner is even a strange – though genuine – feature of love. A relationship has to include the madder, more unreasonable parts of our nature; if we are only ever polite, it’s because we have not been made to feel safe. A row may have to be the turbulent passage towards the kind of deeper reconciliation we long for. It can be important to say some wild and hurtful things to halt a drift apart. By foregrounding for a while the most extreme points of conflict, we set up the conditions for reconnecting with larger areas of closeness. We now remember that, despite an evening squabbling like the frightened, foolish, barely semi-rational idiots we are, we love them deeply nevertheless – and will strive with all our will (and the help of the odd book like this) to argue a little more sensibly next time.

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