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Arguing: Stay on track
by Kim Romen, MSW, LCSW

In my practice I see couples who have ranges of argument styles.  Many couples who first come to see me for counseling tell me that they use yelling matches, name-calling, and put-downs as their main form of communication in an argument.  Other couples are disconnected, shut off, and do not connect with each other. 

There are several tips that are helpful to keep in mind when having a sensitive discussion with one’s spouse.  It is important that both parties are in agreement on a good time to talk, both are well rested, and both partners are not overly stressed or angry.   Using the “D” word (divorce) when angry, arguing in front of the children, and only looking at your spouse’s flaws are no-no’s when arguing.  Today I want to focus on staying on topic in arguments.

It is quite common for couples to go in circles without finishing one subject.  One person says one hurtful thing, the other defends or/and brings up something the other person did, then the first person defends and/or brings up something the second person did and on and on until many hurtful things have been brought up in an unproductive way as nothing gets resolved.  It is important to stick to the subject in order for a resolution to occur. 

Time outs may be practical if the conversation starts becoming emotional and begins going in different directions.  Reminders that “we’re getting off the subject-could we please stay on the subject?” can also be helpful.  Tape or video recording can be a quite enlightening and humbling way to recognize where you are with your communication.  Using an unbiased, neutral third party such as a counselor to help catch these patterns and redirect the conversation can also be very helpful.

Here is an exercise where both parties can come together to talk after already having thought out different aspects of an issue.  Each spouse should write down a topic that they would like to discuss.  Then complete the following sentences: 

  • It is bothering me because…
  • I am partly responsible because I…
  • To resolve this we could… (list as many options as you can think of). 

Agree ahead of time that you will help each other stay on subject.

Approaching a conversation with an emphasis of desiring to work as a team and not pointing fingers will provide a better chance for a successful outcome.  Let your spouse know that it is important to you that you both stay on topic and come to an agreement so that your relationship can grow.  An agreement does not have to be made right away, either.  Allow for time for both partners to think things through and come back to talk some more.

It takes practice to form new habits.  If you and your partner have been going in circles in past disagreements for years it will take some effort to stay on track.  Have patience with each other and work together pointing out progress and helping each other get back on track in conversation.   Working towards breaking bad habits can be hard work, but once you see that you are making progress it will get easier and your relationship will be able to grow.    

Article written by Kim Romen, MSW, LCSW. Published in the Ahwatukee Foothills News on September 9, 2009.

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