Why Arguing Makes the Perfect Gift For Couples

By Arlene Kahn Therapy • August 16th, 2009

Arguing can be a rational exchange of opinions, a light squabble, quarrel or downright fight.  King Henry VIII didn’t bother to argue, he simply cut off each wife’s head when they displeased him.

There are varying opinions whether it’s good or not for couples to argue and I  suggest it can be good or bad.   Having been married for over 40 years and an individual and  marital therapist for 27 years I have found that one of the good parts of marital arguing is that a couple’s dis-satisfactions get out in the open.  Also, USA Today http://blogs.usatoday.com reports a 17 year study of 192 married couples which indicates that couples who argue live longer than those suffering in silence.  In fact, Ernest Harburg, professor emeritus with the University of Michigan School of Public Health and Psychology says “When couples get together, one of their main jobs is reconciliation about conflict….and usually nobody is trained to do this..”

I believe the gift of arguing is when one or both partners can reflect on the feelings involved.  In other words, internally “see” the feelings objectively, and  respond in terms of what both people need at that moment.  Whew!   A tall task, and the subject of this article is  the process of accomplishing that winning situation.

Of course the bad part of arguing is when couples go ’round and ’round like vultures circling overhead just waiting to devour whoever falls first.   As the fight ensues over time the pain increases when nothing changes.  Or worse, when it turns into violence.  And then it’s not just bad, it’s ugly.

Marriage and the romantic relationship has been a fascinating topic through the ages.  Denis De Rougemont wrote  “Love in The Western World”  which is the classic exploration of the psychology of romantic love.  He shows the difficult struggle of combining passion and marriage since the 12th century.  His book has been termed “The History of the Rise, Decline, and Fall of the Love Affair.”   However, it doesn’t seem like the love affair has fallen very much.   We have vivid examples in the political world in current times.   We could think of President Bill Clinton, Presidential candidate John Edwards, NY Governor Eliot Spitzer, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.   Just today (8/16/09)  in a New York Times article entitled “Hanky Panky Among China’s Powerful”  Steven Wong writes that the concubine culture in China is re-emerging along with an increase in extramarital infidelity.

I would bet in all of these situations, and in affairs among the more humble folks like you and me there wasn’t a lot of staying up nights arguing or battling out differences between these couples.  China in particular, is a spectacularly non-confrontational culture.  Of course, it’s not only men who have affairs.  When David Paterson was taking over the governorship after Eliot Spitzer he quickly admitted that both he and his wife have had affairs.  The difference here, is they decided to work it out, viz., they started talking and they stayed together.

For at least a hundred years there have been endless efforts to provide advice, techniques and solutions for marital conflict.  One book in the 60’s, “The Mirages of Marriage” counseled “find a stable partner.”  Well, we know now that there are acutely subtle conscious and unconscious cues that draw us to the partner we choose.  In the mix of those signs that alert us to a potential mate are traits that are excitingly different than our own and traits that are comfortably familiar.  It’s often the very traits that were so exciting before marriage that become the seeds of conflict after marriage.

Imago Relationship Therapy in the book “Getting The Love You Want:  A Guide for Couples by Harville Hendrix, says that the conflicts that arise in intimate relationships signal the frustrations, fears and hurts that are embedded in the relationship.   Each partner’s frustration  shows the other the ways in which he or she may need to mature, be more (or less) giving, a little more heart-felt in their love.

The other day a couple came in to their session and reported the kind of arguing that makes the perfect gift.

For this couple, food is a notoriously sensitive issue.  For the past ten years, Jim has made it well known that he likes his food made his way and not touched by anyone else.  Elise was brought up in a family that shares and tastes other family members’  food.  So it was automatic for her to take a bite of his sandwich, or a piece of his cake, etc.  When she would do that, Jim would either “blow up” at her, reiterating for the hundredth time to leave his food alone, or throw out the cake and  withdraw and not talk to her for a few days, until the inner rage subsided.  They could not reconcile this issue.  Elise felt rejected by his refusal to share, and Jim felt invaded and demeaned by her lack of respect for his well-stated boundaries.

When Jim and Elise came for their session recently they reported that a similar scenario had occurred during the week.  Jim had bought smoked salmon, a favorite food of his.  He bought the fatty kind that he especially likes and the non-fatty kind for Elise which she says she likes better.  When her salmon was gone, she asked him for some of his.

In summary, I will describe what happened.

Elise, as in their usual pattern, was ready to cry at the frustration she saw in Jim’s face and his knee-jerk unwillingness to share with her.  She said this time she stopped and “felt into” her feeling of rejection.   She also gained a “felt-sense” of his struggle to decide whether to give her something that was his, that he valued greatly.  She waited.  She said it was as if the weight of this argument settled all around them, accompanied by a gentle mist.  Finally, within a passing moment, without a word, Jim took  a  portion of his and put it on her plate, as if it was the most natural thing in the world for him to do.

What is the gift in this scenario?

Despite fears of being criticized as selfish, self centered, uncaring of the other, they were willing to risk expressing their anger, resentment,  perhaps their envy, letting it be seen.  What kind of risk is that you might ask?  In a way, it is an effort to be their own advocates, attempting to get some form of acknowledgement for these  needs, that may never have been properly acknowledged before.

Ultimately, they both were able to change.   Elise grew into accepting a boundary without letting her dogged feeling of rejection dominate her.  Jim stretched emotionally into a greater ability to share.  Their love and mutual respect, deepened.    No one got their head cut off, or got devoured by the other.  Instead, their arguing could move to a new level, one where they could experience themselves as if in a combined field of interactions where uncomfortable feelings of rejection and invasiveness could just be, in the space between them, without judgement or criticism.   By “feeling into” the uncomfortableness, it could pass and release its grip, allowing a new experience of closeness, sharing and acceptance.

In conclusion, arguing can be a gift.   It can involve the risks of sharing clumsily, having an unreasonableness, showing our needs to our partner.  By learning to reflect on the feelings of anger, resentment, fear or even hatred,  we can learn to become more objective. The next step is to realize that we are both part of a combined field of interactions in which we are caught.  Through the inner sensing or “feeling into”  the situation, the field and its argument can resolve.

Note: The concept of The Interactive Field is drawn from Nathan Schwartz-Salant, author of The Mystery of Human Relationship and The Black Nightgown.

How to develop and work with a “Felt-Sense” is taken from the work of Eugene Gendlin in his book “Focusing.” See their website www.Focusing.org.

Thanks for visiting my website.  I welcome your comments and opinions, thoughts, ideas and/or suggestions for future articles.


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