Arguments mean different things in different circumstances.
An argument is defined as a work of persuasion. We use arguments to convince others of our point of view.
Well-thought arguments are crucial to social discourse and an important tool in workplace decision-making. When we make a business case or present a new policy to colleagues, we will support our view with arguments that add value and rely on logic.
In intimate relationships like marriage, arguments usually mean something else. They typically develop from a simple disagreement (a difference of opinion) and have an emotional load.
While a disagreement is mostly about the words we say, an argument is more about the emotions and meaning behind the words. This has led relationship expert Dr Sue Johnson to say that “arguments are a protest against disconnection.”
Behind every argument between intimates is a loss of connection, a loss of the sense of being understood and accepted. When that happens, we feel “separation distress” and we seek to restore connection.
In other words, an argument is an attempt to call attention to our disconnection. It’s a cry for intimacy, to be reassured by our spouse that we matter and are loved.
Seeking connection is a good thing in marriage. It helps us to feel secure and enables us to redirect our energies to serve our children and community.
But when our attempts to reestablish connection fail, we often react in ways that are unproductive and intimidating.
We might use words that accuse and blame, we criticise, threaten and deride, or we withdraw and refuse to engage.
None of these help us to reestablish connection. Worse, they have the potential to cause deep harm to the other’s heart and to our marriage.
This is not to say couples should avoid arguments at all costs. It’s important that we be willing to face into challenging issues together.
If our spouse is unable to question and challenge us to change and grow, our marriage will stagnate and living with us will become more and more unpleasant.
The arguments that do most damage to our relationship are the ones where there is no self-regulation. We say or do things that cause deep wounds that are subsequently ignored.
We can avoid this by processing our intense emotions privately to better understand our needs. This self-awareness helps us express our needs and emotions more honestly and with less intimidation.
Too often, our words focus on the other’s faults and behaviour. It triggers defensiveness and avoids the real issue: our need for connection, reassurance, understanding, comfort, security etc.
Importantly, when there is wounding, we need to be willing to apologise, forgive and reconcile. Long-term damage is minimised by promptly repairing and healing any injuries incurred by our clumsy argumentation.
Done well, such a process will make our relationship stronger than it was before as we’ll know ourselves and each other better.
Moreover, we’ll be more confident attempting tricky topics in the future knowing that our relationship has the resilience to handle it.
One of the most helpful things for tackling arguments in a marriage is to recognise the subtext.
When one or both spouses feel disconnected, vulnerable, unsafe, alone or misunderstood, we experience separation distress.
The subject of the argument might be something simple, like being late or overspending on a purchase. The real issue is always more fundamental – a doubt about our value, our security in the relationship.
Learn to recognise the separation distress behind your arguments, and you’ll resolve them more quickly and have them less often.