Chapter OneWhat's So Bad about Arguing?
Let's start at the beginning. In the dating phase
of your relationship, chances are that you and your
spouse were enamored with each other. You liked
what you saw. You enjoyed spending time together.
You could talk for hours. He or she was the most
wonderful person you could imagine. In short, you
were smitten. The courtship may have been long
or short, but your positive feelings led you to the
marriage altar, where you made a commitment "for
better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness
and in health; to love and to cherish, so long as we
both shall live." The promises you made to each
other were colossal, but at the time you fully intended
to keep them. You were caught up in the
current of love and it all seemed so effortless. You
knew that you and your mate had differences, but
you never thought that someday those differences
would become divisive.
Unfortunately, the euphoric feelings of being in
love have an average life span of two years. Then we
come back to the world of reality, where theoretical
differences become actual. Some of these differences
we come to view as assets. Alan likes to cook; Nancy
doesn't. She likes to clear the table and wash dishes;
he doesn't. These differences make for a harmonious
mealtime experience. Alan and Nancy work
together as a team, each using his or her expertise
for the benefit of the other. They experience the
pleasure of harmony and may even express it with
statements such as, "We were meant for each other,"
"We are a perfect match," "Life could not be better,"
and "I'm so glad I married you." When differences
are viewed as assets, and husbands and wives
work together in harmony, life is beautiful.
Other differences may become divisive. Bob
likes sports and spends every Monday night watching
football. Jill says, "Football is fine for the players,
who are making millions of dollars by bashing
their bodies against one another, but why would
people want to waste their lives watching other
people play a stupid game?" Surely the man she
married is smarter than that.
"It's just my way of relaxing," Bob says.
"It's just your way of wasting your life," Jill
"You have got to be crazy. Every man in the
world watches Monday Night Football."
"Only the losers."
"Look, I work five days a week. Give me a break
and let me watch football on Monday nights."
"Sure you work. So do I. But how about us?
Why can't we spend a night together? It's football,
baseball, basketball, car races. And if nothing else is
on, you watch that dumb wrestling. There's never
any time for us." Jill starts to cry and walks out of
the room. Bob turns off the TV and now the real
fight begins. Monday Night Football gives way to
a verbal boxing match. Before the evening is over,
Bob and Jill will argue themselves into an intense
state of unhappiness.
What did an evening of argument accomplish?
Some might say, "Nothing," but that answer would
be naive. The argument accomplished a great deal.
For one thing, it created greater emotional distance
between a husband and wife who now view each
other as an enemy rather than a friend. Each feels
the other is unreasonable and, perhaps, irrational.
Not only that, but they have also stimulated feelings
of hurt, anger, and resentment, and troubling
questions are rushing to their minds:
"What has gotten into him?"
"What is her problem?"
"I can't believe the things she said."
"How could he be so cruel?"
"What happened to our love?"
"Have I married the wrong person?"
They may even end up sleeping in separate bedrooms
that night, or lying stock still and rigid in
the same bed as they silently replay the argument
in their minds. Yes, the argument accomplished
a great deal. Unfortunately, the accomplishments
were all destructive.
Perhaps the only positive thing that came from
the argument was that Bob and Jill identified a
point of conflict in their marriage. He discovered
that she intensely dislikes his watching Monday
Night Football, and she discovered that he finds
great pleasure in watching football on Monday
nights. But because the argument did not resolve
the conflict, it now stands as an emotional barrier
between them that will affect the way they process
their relationship. Now, every Monday night, Bob
will watch television with a conscious awareness
that he is displeasing his wife. And every Monday
night, Jill will say to herself, "He loves football more
than he loves me. What kind of husband is that?"
We'll come back to Bob and Jill later, but first
let me clarify what I mean by the word argue. It
is a word that is best known in the legal arena,
where attorneys present arguments to show that a
defendant is either guilty or not guilty. These arguments
are statements made by the attorneys based
on available evidence. They are designed to appeal
to a jury's sense of logic and reason. The implication
is clear: Any reasonable person would agree
with my argument. On occasion, an attorney may
also appeal to the emotions of a jury by presenting
aspects of the case designed to stimulate empathy
for the attorney's argument.
In a courtroom, arguments are perfectly permissible.
In fact, cases could not be tried without
arguments from both sides. Both attorneys present
evidence and their interpretation of the evidence,
seeking to convince the jury that their position is
the correct one. Witnesses can be cross-examined,
and implications can be challenged. The judicial
system is based on the assumption that by means
of argument and counterargument, we are likely to
discover the truth about guilt or innocence.
We all know that the cause of justice is not always
served in the courtroom, but at least the case
is resolved. Defendants who are found not guilty
go free. Defendants who are found guilty may pay
a fine, be placed on probation, or go to prison,
depending on the severity of the case. Or the case
might be appealed to a higher court, in which case
more arguments would be presented at each level
of appeal until a final judgment is handed down.
In every case, somebody wins and somebody loses.
Occasionally, one might hear an attorney make a
statement such as, "I thought our arguments were
good, but apparently the jury was not convinced."
Or the winning attorney might say, "We made our
case. The arguments were solid, and I think the jury
recognized the truth."
When you choose to argue with your spouse,
you are electing to use a judicial system to convince
your spouse of the truth or validity of your
position. Unfortunately, what works fairly well in
a court of law works very poorly in a marriage relationship,
because there is no judge available to
determine whether you or your spouse is "out of
order." Arguments quickly become charged with
emotion and you may end up yelling, screaming,
or crying; pouring out words that assassinate your
mate's character; questioning his or her motives;
and condemning his or her behavior as unloving,
unkind, and undisciplined.
When you argue, your objective is the same as
it would be in a courtroom: You want to win the
case. You want your side to be vindicated and your
spouse to be found guilty of your accusations. This
is what is so gravely harmful about arguments. They
ultimately lead to one of three results: (1) You win
and your spouse loses; (2) you lose and your spouse
wins; or (3) you argue to a draw. When an argument
ends in a draw, both spouses are losers. Neither one
is convinced by the other's arguments, and both
parties walk away disappointed, frustrated, hurt,
angry, bitter, and often despairing of hope for their
None of these outcomes is good. The winner
may feel good for a few moments or a few days, but
eventually, living with the loser becomes unbearable.
The loser walks away from an argument like a
whipped dog that goes away to lick its wounds. It's
not a pretty picture, but it's a common experience.
In fact, it's so common that we have a saying for
it: "He's in the doghouse." Being in the doghouse
means that one spouse has incurred the displeasure
of the other and must live at a distance until he or
she can once again find the spouse's favor. When
conflicts are not resolved and both spouses walk
away with stinging words of rebuke and condemnation
ringing in their ears, they will typically withdraw
from each other emotionally and hope for a
better day. If a better day does not come in time,
they may eventually seek a "better partner" or resign
themselves to the coldness of a winter marriage.
Any victory won by means of an argument will
be short lived. The loser will eventually come back
with a new argument (or an old argument restated)
in an effort to persuade his or her spouse. But the
renewed argument will also end with a win, lose, or
draw verdict. So you see, arguments never resolve
anything; they only reveal conflicts. Once a conflict
is revealed, a couple must find a way to resolve it
with dignity and with respect for the other person.
I believe there are thousands of couples who would
like to learn how to resolve conflicts without arguing.
That is the purpose of this book.
* * *
PUTTING THE PRINCIPLES
1. List three issues you and your spouse have
argued about within the past year.
2. What do you find most painful about
3. What have arguments accomplished
in your marriage?
4. On a scale of 1-10, how strongly are you
motivated to find a better way to resolve
The ideas I have shared in this book were not
devised in an ivory tower. They grow out of thirty
years of listening to couples who have spent hours
arguing and have come to the point of desperation.
They come from more than forty years of experience
in my own marriage. What I have shared with
couples in counseling, I have now shared with you.
But I am fully aware that knowledge alone is not
enough. In order to be helpful, knowledge must be
applied to life. Now that you have read the book, I
want to challenge you to read it again, this time with
your spouse. (You've already seen that the chapters
are short, so you know we're not talking about a
great deal of time.) Share your answers to the questions
at the end of each chapter. Your answers will
reveal your thoughts, feelings, and desires related
to the topic of the chapter. Then, as conflicts arise
in your marriage, seek to apply the principles you
have read and discussed with each other.
Argumentative patterns from the past will not
die quickly, but you can learn a better way. It will
take time and effort, but it is effort well invested.
If the two of you can learn to resolve your conflicts
without arguing, you will experience the joy of
working in harmony as a team. This is what marriage
is all about: a husband and wife using their
unique ideas, emotions, and desires to strengthen
each other's lives. Resolving conflicts in a healthy
manner deepens a marriage relationship. You can
learn to resolve conflicts without arguing.
If you find this book helpful, I hope you will
share it with a friend. If you have stories to share
with me, I invite you to select the Contact link at
Some Thoughts Worth Remembering
* When you win an argument, your spouse
is the loser. And we all know it's no fun
to live with a loser.
* Arguments accomplish a great deal.
Unfortunately, the accomplishments are
* As surely as you can learn to ride a
bicycle, drive a car, or use a computer,
you can learn how to resolve conflicts.
* The answer to conflict resolution is not in
seeking to rid ourselves of our differences