Arguments - Why we argue the way we do

Arguments - Why we argue the way we do

Arguments - Why we argue the way we do

By Susie Carr - LifeWorks Trainer


Many people who come to see me for training in personal development issues often ask "how can we stop fighting?" Having a clearer understanding of the steps that lead to people fighting is a very useful skill to have.

It isn't difficult to understand the steps of how we engage in conflict with a loved one but it is much more difficult to change them. The first step in changing the patterns we have around conflict is to break down the way we fight and to look more closely at how we personally engage in arguments with loved ones.

This article describes that process.

What needs to be said about arguments is that they are pretty normal in all relationships. Couples don't always have to agree with everything their partner says and it's important to respect individuality and differing views. Couples will always have their differences but its good to remember that in successful relationships people develop the ability to negotiate their differences well.

How arguments generally begin is when one person says something to another in an unkind way either as a criticism or a judgment. The person at the receiving end will usually react by being defensive and by offering another criticism or judgment back. This looks something like a tennis match between the people involved who bat harsh words back and forth to each other.

What also fans the flames of an argument is when the people involved start to bring in issues from the past or unresolved issues sometimes referred to as 'unfinished business'. People who want to prove a point or prove their partners are wrong often use old issues as weapons. This can often take the argument to the next level. At this point people can behave in very disrespectful ways towards each other saying unnecessarily hurtful things.

If the couple are unable to stop their dialogue from developing in to a more serious argument, the cycle of conflict continues and emotions will run higher. At that point people either react by spilling out with emotion or withdrawing and shutting down completely.


John Gottman, a well-known psychologist and researcher into couples describes the escalation stages of argument in terms of 'flooding' or 'stonewalling'. What this means is that someone who is unable to manage their angry feelings will flood over with big emotion and behave badly. They do this by shouting, crying, screaming, or smashing things. In extreme flooding behavior this can lead to threats of violence or actual violence.

Stonewalling is when a person feels so overwhelmed by the argument and by their own angry feelings they literally shut down from the other person. Stonewallers also cannot manage their angry feelings. Stonewallers are equally at risk of their anger spilling out into extreme behavior as a flooder. Just because they shut down it doesn't mean their feelings of anger aren't as intense or as potentially destructive it just means they deal with them differently.

When Gottman talks about these two styles of reactions he points out that the way people experience their emotions during high conflict is the same. Gottman goes on to explain that if you measured the pulse rate of a someone who started to flood and someone who stonewalled they would both measure over 100 BPM.

How we fight and argue is learned behavior. We learn how to behave in relationships when we are growing up by watching our parents or caregivers relate to each other. If your parents were flooders or a stonewallers or a combination of the two styles what generally happens is that we adapt or avoid one of those styles in favour of another depending on our personality.

The art of doing conflict well in couples and families does not boil down to one thing - in fact it involves a range of behaviours. Learning how to negotiate differences, how to compromise, repair the fall out from arguments, finding mutually acceptable resolutions to problems in respectful ways, how to sooth your own and if necessary your partners anxiety during disagreements and developing the ability to stay connected even if you disagree.

For more information about dealing with conflict read my next article, ' Soothing the soul' - look out for it soon!

Susie Carr LifeWorks Trainer
Susie Carr - Personal Development Trainer

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