Stenzel Clinical proudly supports Feed My Starving Children. Learn more here.

Why do we argue if it doesn’t work?

Posted on: No Comments

By Grant Stenzel, MS LCPC

Arguing just doesn’t work.  We all believe that we are logical and therefore a logical argument should work.  When was the last time that you provided a very logical reason why you are right in the middle of an argument and your spouse just iStock_000019522580Mediumstopped and agreed with you?  Time is up.  Couldn’t think of it could you?  Making logical arguments in the middle of an argument is therefore illogical.  Doing the same action over and over and expecting a different result is what?  That’s right: insanity.

I am not saying that arguing is inherently wrong; I am simply asserting that it is not effective. For the most part, our goal during an argument is to be heard and understood. How likely is it that we will meet that goal if we create an environment where the person gets defensive? As humans, we don’t like to be wrong. We will argue even if we know we are wrong; this is human nature.

So what is effective?  Making unarguable statements.  For example:

“You are always yelling at me.”  This is a VERY arguable statement.  I guarantee if you say this, the person will bring up the one time they didn’t.  Your message is lost, and the argument will now start.  Think about it, what was the goal of this statement?  It was to explain that you don’t like to be yelled at, you are being yelled at, and you would like the yelling to stop.  Is the statement “You are always yelling at me,” going to meet your goal?  Nope.

“I feel hurt when you yell at me, could you use a softer tone?”  The fact you are hurt is pretty unarguable. You are hurt; someone can’t really say that you aren’t.  Starting with “I” bring ownership to the statement and not blame.  The statement doesn’t infer malicious intent; it simply defines a behavior you would like to stop.

Conversely, what do you do when your spouse comes at you with an argument? I am assuming that you have tried defending yourself, explaining your motive and explaining what the person has done wrong to you. Do these methods ever work? I didn’t think so. When people argue they often repeat, yell or continually restate their point using different words. The reason is they feel unheard and misunderstood. So what is the most effective way to deal with someone that starts an argument with you? Listen. Truly listen to their message and determine what they are really trying to say. Then reflect their message back to them to see if you are correct.

So what is more effective?  We will say that your spouse says, “You are always yelling at me.”  Here are two possible responses:

“Well I wouldn’t have to yell if you would just learn to listen.”  Here is another guarantee, this is going to turn into an ugly argument or the person is going to walk away angry and hurt.  Either way, it is not effective.  If someone is coming at you with an argument their method may not be good, but their desire is to be understood and to improve the relationship.

“I am sorry you feel that I yell too much.  I can understand why you wouldn’t like that.  I will work on that.”  After you pick your spouse up from the floor, they may ask you what you really said or if aliens had taken your body.  Will this work every time?  No.  However, you have a much better chance of a calm conversation with this opening.  Remember, people just want to be heard and understood; if you do this, it will often calm them down.  Plus, this is likely how you would like your spouse to respond to you.

Furthermore, you can validate their emotions and their point.  You don’t have to agree to validate.  In the above statement there is no agreement with the statement of “always yelling.”  However, you would be validating what the person is trying to say and what they feel.

Some examples of validating statements: (obviously you can’t use a sarcastic tone)

  • Wow, I didn’t realize I was doing that.
  • I am sorry.
  • I can understand why you are mad.
  • Yeah, that would upset me too.
  • I don’t blame you for being hurt.
  • That must be difficult to deal with.
  • You have a good point, let’s talk about this.

These statements will not just validate your partner, but more often than not will defuse the situation.  Wouldn’t you like to hear these from your spouse?

In marriage, we often think we are the one trying and our spouse isn’t.  We listen, we try to change, we work on things and our spouse does nothing.  As a marriage counselor I hear this all the time; from BOTH spouses.  How can it be that both people think they are trying but the other isn’t?  That is how the human brain works.  We justify ourselves, we understand why we fail and we see each time that we are putting forth effort.  On the other hand, we assume malicious motives when our spouse hurts us and we don’t see the effort they are trying to put forth. You don’t know every time your spouse bites their tongue, does things around the house, or is mentally trying to better themselves.  Realistically, you see 100% of what you do and 25% of what your spouse does.  Using these numbers, your spouse would have to do four times as much as you for you to feel that the effort put forth by both of you is equal.

I believe, for the majority of marriages, we have two people with good motives and bad actions.  I know, you think you are the only one with good motives, but your spouse also believes they are the only one with good motives.  Why does this happen?  Our actions communicate that we don’t care, even if we do.  If your spouse comes to you with a problem and all you do is defend yourself, they are going to think you don’t care or just won’t listen.  Even though you hear everything they are saying, you non-verbally communicate that you disagree and don’t care by arguing back. There are many other examples of how our actions miscommunicate our intentions.

Here are some rules of engagement, or fair fighting guidelines:

Conflict is inevitable; it is how you resolve conflict that will determine how well you get along.  Arguing just doesn’t work..  However, if you follow these guidelines, things should go smoother.

The “No” list:

  • No name calling
  • No yelling
  • No going off topic
  • No use of the words: “never,” “always,” “whatever,” or “how many times have I …”
  • No sarcasm
  • No mind reading, do not tell the other person their motive or what they were thinking
  • No use of intimidation, threats or violence
  • No starting a sentence with “you”
  • No explaining why, it doesn’t really matter
  • No “one upping” I might have done ______ but you did _______ and that is worse!
  • No minimizing your spouse’s emotions
  • No attacking your spouse’s character
  • No responding to a complaint with your own complaint
  • No repeating over and over the same thing
  • No generalizing
  • No eye rolling
  • No assuming they are trying to hurt you


The Do’s:

  • Listen (earn the right to be heard)
  • Call a time-out when things are escalating, there is yelling or you are getting nowhere
  • Come back in 1 hour after the time-out
  • Be honest
  • Apologize for what you have done wrong
  • Validate
  • Use reflective listening (so what I hear you saying is that you feel ______ when __________ happens) No sarcasm though!
  • Start sentences with I
  • Use this simple formula “I feel _______(emotion) when you_________(behavior) I would like __________ (positive behavior)
  • Example “I feel hurt when you yell at me, I would like you to speak in a calmer tone.”
  • Validate emotions
  • Point out behaviors that you are unhappy with
  • Be specific
  • Remember you love this person and they love you
  • Remember your spouse is not perfect and to expecting them to be is ludicrous
  • Treat your spouse the way you would like to be treated