Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: The Classic Guide to Understanding the Opposite Sex - John Gray 1992
How to Avoid Arguments
One of the most difficult challenges in our loving relationships is handling differences and disagreements. Often when couples disagree their discussions can turn into arguments and then without much warning into battles. Suddenly they stop talking in a loving manner and automatically begin hurting each other: blaming, complaining, accusing, demanding, resenting, and doubting.
Men and women arguing in this way hurt not only their feelings but also their relationship. Just as communication is the most important element in a relationship, arguments can be the most destructive element, because the closer we are to someone, the easier it is to bruise or be bruised.
Just as communication is the most important element in a relationship, arguments can be the most destructive element.
For all practical purposes I strongly recommend that couples not argue. When two people are not sexually involved it is a lot easier to remain detached and objective while arguing or debating. But when couples argue who are emotionally involved and especially sexually involved, they easily take things too personally.
As a basic guideline: never argue. Instead discuss the pros and cons of something. Negotiate for what you want but don’t argue. It is possible to be honest, open, and even express negative feelings without arguing or fighting.
Some couples fight all the time, and gradually their love dies. On the other extreme, some couples suppress their honest feelings in order to avoid conflict and not argue. As a result of suppressing their true feelings they lose touch with their loving feelings as well. One couple is having a war while the other is having a cold war.
It is best for a couple to find a balance between these two extremes. By remembering we are from different planets and thus developing good communication skills, it is possible to avoid arguments without suppressing negative feelings and conflicting ideas and desires.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE ARGUE
Without understanding how men and women are different it is very easy to get into arguments that hurt not only our partner but also ourselves. The secret to avoiding arguments is loving and respectful communication.
The differences and disagreements don’t hurt as much as the ways in which we communicate them. Ideally an argument does not have to be hurtful; instead it can simply be an engaging conversation that expresses our differences and disagreements. (Inevitably all couples will have differences and disagree at times.) But practically speaking most couples start out arguing about one thing and, within five minutes, are arguing about the way they are arguing.
Unknowingly they begin hurting each other; what could have been an innocent argument, easily resolved with mutual understanding and an acceptance of differences, escalates into a battle. They refuse to accept or understand the content of their partner’s point of view because of the way they are being approached.
Resolving an argument requires extending or stretching our point of view to include and integrate another point of view. To make this stretch we need to feel appreciated and respected. If our partner’s attitude is unloving, our self-esteem can actually be wounded by taking on their point of view.
Most couples start out arguing about one thing and, within five minutes, are arguing about the way they are arguing.
The more intimate we are with someone, the more difficult it is objectively to hear their point of view without reacting to their negative feelings. To protect ourselves from feeling worthy of their disrespect or disapproval automatic defenses come up to resist their point of view. Even if we agree with their point of view, we may stubbornly persist in arguing with them.
WHY ARGUMENTS HURT
It is not what we say that hurts but how we say it. Quite commonly when a man feels challenged, his attention becomes focused on being right and he forgets to be loving as well. Automatically his ability to communicate in a caring, respectful, and reassuring tone decreases. He is aware neither of how uncaring he sounds nor of how hurtful this is to his partner. At such times, a simple disagreement may sound like an attack to a woman; a request turns into an order. Naturally a woman feels resistant to this unloving approach, even when she would be otherwise receptive to the content of what he was saying.
A man unknowingly hurts his partner by speaking in an uncaring manner and then goes on to explain why she should not be upset. He mistakenly assumes she is resisting the content of his point of view, when really his unloving delivery is what upsets her. Because he does not understand her reaction, he focuses more on explaining the merit of what he is saying instead of correcting the way he is saying it.
He has no idea that he is starting an argument; he thinks she is arguing with him. He defends his point of view while she defends herself from his sharpened expressions, which are hurtful to her.
When a man neglects to honor a woman’s hurt feelings he invalidates them and increases her hurt. It is hard for him to understand her hurt because he is not as vulnerable to uncaring comments and tones. Consequently, a man may not even realize how much he is hurting his partner and thus provoking her resistance.
Similarly, women don’t realize how they are hurtful to men. Unlike a man, when a woman feels challenged the tone of her speech automatically becomes increasingly mistrusting and rejecting. This kind of rejection is more hurtful to a man, especially when he is emotionally involved.
Women start and escalate arguments by first sharing negative feelings about their partner’s behavior and then by giving unsolicited advice. When a woman neglects to buffer her negative feelings with messages of trust and acceptance, a man responds negatively, leaving the woman confused. Again she is unaware of how hurtful her mistrust is to him.
To avoid arguing we need to remember that our partner objects not to what we are saying but to how we are saying it. It takes two to argue, but it only takes one to stop an argument. The best way to stop an argument is to nip it in the bud. Take responsibility for recognizing when a disagreement is turning into an argument. Stop talking and take a time-out. Reflect on how you are approaching your partner. Try to understand how you are not giving them what they need. Then, after some time has passed, come back and talk again but in a loving and respectful way. Time-outs allow us to cool off, heal our wounds, and center ourselves before trying to communicate again.
THE FOUR F’S FOR AVOIDING HURT
There are basically four stances that individuals take to avoid getting hurt in arguments. They are the four f’s: fight, flight, fake, and fold. Each of these stances offers a short-term gain, but in the long run they are all counterproductive. Let’s explore each of these positions.
1. Fight. This stance definitely comes from Mars. When a conversation becomes unloving and unsupportive some individuals instinctively begin to fight. They immediately move into an offensive stance. Their motto is “the best defense is a strong offense.” They strike out by blaming, judging, criticizing, and making their partner look wrong. They tend to start yelling and express lots of anger. Their inner motive is to intimidate their partner into loving and supporting them. When their partner backs down, they assume they have won, but in truth they have lost.
Intimidation always weakens trust in a relationship.
Intimidation always weakens trust in a relationship. To muscle your way into getting what you want by making others look wrong is a sure way to fail in a relationship. When couples fight they gradually lose their ability to be open and vulnerable. Women close up to protect themselves and men shut down and stop caring as much. Gradually they lose whatever intimacy they had in the beginning.
2. Flight. This stance also comes from Mars. To avoid confrontation Martians may retire into their caves and never come out. This is like a cold war. They refuse to talk and nothing gets resolved. This passive-aggressive behavior is not the same as taking a time-out and then coming back to talk and resolve things in a more loving fashion.
These Martians are afraid of confrontation and would rather lie low and avoid talking about any topics that may cause an argument. They walk on eggshells in a relationship. Women commonly complain they have to walk on eggshells, but men do also. It is so ingrained in men that they don’t even realize how much they do it.
Rather than arguing, some couples will simply stop talking about their disagreements. Their way of trying to get what they want is to punish their partner by withholding love. They do not come out and directly hurt their partners, like the fighters. Instead they indirectly hurt them by slowly depriving them of the love they deserve. By withholding love our partners are sure to have less to give us.
The short-term gain is peace and harmony, but if issues are not being talked about and feelings are not being heard then resentments will build. In the long run, they lose touch with the passionate and loving feelings that drew them together. They generally use overworking, overeating, or other addictions as a way to numb their unresolved painful feelings.
3. Fake. This stance comes from Venus. To avoid being hurt in a confrontation this person pretends that there is no problem. She puts a smile on her face and appears to be very agreeable and happy with everything. Over time, however, these women become increasingly resentful; they are always giving to their partner but they do not get what they need in return. This resentment blocks the natural expression of love.
They are afraid to be honest about their feelings, so they try to make everything “all right, OK, and fine.” Men commonly use these phrases, but for them they mean something completely different. He means “It is OK because I am dealing with it alone” or “It’s all right because I know what to do” or “It’s fine because I am handling it, and I don’t need any help.” Unlike a man, when a woman uses these phrases it may be a sign that she is trying to avoid a conflict or argument.
To avoid making waves, a woman may even fool herself and believe that everything is OK, fine, and all right when it really isn’t. She sacrifices or denies her wants, feelings, and needs to avoid the possibility of conflict.
4. Fold. This stance also comes from Venus. Rather than argue this person gives in. They will take the blame and assume responsibility for whatever is upsetting their partner. In the short run they create what looks like a very loving and supportive relationship, but they end up losing themselves.
A man once complained to me about his wife. He said “I love her so much. She gives me everything I want. My only complaint is she is not happy.” His wife had spent twenty years denying herself for her husband. They never fought, and if you asked her about her relationship she would say “We have a great relationship. My husband is so loving. Our only problem is me. I am depressed and I don’t know why.” She is depressed because she has denied herself by being agreeable for twenty years.
To please their partners these people intuitively sense their partners’ desires and then mold themselves in order to please. Eventually they resent having to give up themselves for love.
Any form of rejection is very painful because they are already rejecting themselves so much. They seek to avoid rejection at all costs and want to be loved by all. In this process they literally give up who they are.
You may have found yourself in one of these four F’s or in many of them. People commonly move from one to the other. In each of the above four strategies our intention is to protect ourselves from being hurt. Unfortunately, it does not work. What works is to identify arguments and stop. Take a time-out to cool off and then come back and talk again. Practice communicating with increased understanding and respect for the opposite sex and you will gradually learn to avoid arguments and fights.
WHY WE ARGUE
Men and women commonly argue about money, sex, decisions, scheduling, values, child rearing, and household responsibilities. These discussions and negotiations, however, turn into painful arguments for only one reason—we are not feeling loved. Emotional pain comes from not feeling loved, and when a person is feeling emotional pain it is hard to be loving.
Because women are not from Mars, they do not instinctively realize what a man needs in order to deal successfully with disagreements. Conflicting ideas, feelings, and desires are a difficult challenge for a man. The closer he is to a woman, the harder it is to deal with differences and disagreements. When she doesn’t like something he has done, he tends to take it very personally and feels she doesn’t like him.
A man can handle differences and disagreements best when his emotional needs are being fulfilled. When he is deprived of the love he needs, however, he becomes defensive and his dark side begins to emerge; instinctively he draws his sword.
On the surface he may seem to be arguing about the issue (money, responsibilities, and so forth), but the real reason he has drawn his sword is he doesn’t feel loved. When a man argues about money, scheduling, children, or any other issue, secretly he may be arguing for some of the following reasons.
The Secret Reasons Men Argue
The hidden reason he is arguing: 1.“I don’t like it when she gets upset over the smallest things I do or don’t do. I feel criticized, rejected, and unaccepted.”
What he needs not to argue: 1. He needs to feel accepted just the way he is. Instead he feels she is trying to improve him.
The hidden reason he is arguing: 2. “I don’t like it when she starts telling me how I should do things. I don’t feel admired. Instead I feel like I am being treated like a child.”
What he needs not to argue: 2. He needs to feel admired. Instead he feels put down.
The hidden reason he is arguing: 3. “I don’t like it when she blames me for her unhappiness. I don’t feel encouraged to be her knight in shining armor.”
What he needs not to argue: 3. He needs to feel encouraged. Instead he feels like giving up.
The hidden reason he is arguing: 4. “I don’t like it when she complains about how much she does or how unappreciated she feels. It makes me feel unappreciated for the things I do for her.”
What he needs not to argue: 4. He needs to feel appreciated. Instead he feels blamed, unacknowledged, and powerless.
The hidden reason he is arguing: 5. “I don’t like it when she worries about everything that could go wrong. I don’t feel trusted.”
What he needs not to argue: 5. He needs to feel trusted and appreciated for his contribution to her security. Instead he feels responsible for her anxiety.
The hidden reason he is arguing: 6. “I don’t like it when she expects me to do things or talk when she wants me to. I don’t feel accepted or respected.”
What he needs not to argue: 6. He needs to feel accepted just the way he is. Instead he feels controlled or pressured to talk and thus has nothing to say. It makes him feel that he can never satisfy her.
The hidden reason he is arguing: 7. “I don’t like it when she feels hurt by what I say. I feel mistrusted, misunderstood, and pushed away.”
What he needs not to argue: 7. He needs to feel accepted and trusted. Instead he feels rejected and unforgiven.
The hidden reason he is arguing: 8. “I don’t like it when she expects me to read her mind. I can’t. It makes me feel bad or inadequate.”
What he needs not to argue: 8. He needs to feel approved of and accepted. Instead he feels like a failure.
Fulfilling a man’s primary emotional needs will diminish his tendency to engage in hurtful arguments. Automatically he will be able to listen and speak with much greater respect, understanding, and caring. In this way arguments, differences of opinion, and negative feelings can be resolved through conversation, negotiation, and compromise without escalating into hurtful arguments.
Women also contribute to hurtful arguments but for different reasons. On the surface she may be arguing about finances, responsibilities, or another issue, but secretly inside she is resisting her partner for some of these following reasons.
The Secret Reasons Women Argue
The hidden reason she is arguing: 1.“I don’t like it when he minimizes the importance of my feelings or requests. I feel dismissed and unimportant.”
What she needs not to argue: 1. She needs to feel validated and cherished. Instead she feels judged and ignored.
The hidden reason she is arguing: 2. “I don’t like it when he forgets to do the things I ask, and then I sound like a nag. I feel like I am begging for his support.”
What she needs not to argue: 2. She needs to feel respected and remembered. Instead she feels neglected and at the bottom of his list of priorities.
The hidden reason she is arguing: 3. “I don’t like it when he blames me for being upset. I feel like I have to be perfect to be loved. I am not perfect.”
What she needs not to argue: 3. She needs him to understand why she is upset and reassure her that she is still loved and that she doesn’t have to be perfect. Instead she feels unsafe to be herself.
The hidden reason she is arguing: 4. “I don’t like it when he raises his voice or starts making lists of why he is right. It makes me feel like I am wrong and he doesn’t care about my point of view.”
What she needs not to argue: 4. She needs to feel understood and respected. Instead she feels unheard, bullied, and pushed down.
The hidden reason she is arguing: 5. “I don’t like his condescending attitude when I ask questions about decisions we need to make. It makes me feel like I am a burden or that I am wasting his time.”
What she needs not to argue: 5. She needs to feel that he cares about her feelings, and respects her need to gather information. Instead she feels disrespected and unappreciated.
The hidden reason she is arguing: 6. “I don’t like it when he doesn’t respond to my questions or comments. It makes me feel like I don’t exist.”
What she needs not to argue: 6. She needs to feel reassured that he is listening and that he cares. Instead she feels ignored or judged.
The hidden reason she is arguing: 7. “I don’t like it when he explains why I should not be hurt, worried, angry, or anything else. I feel invalidated and unsupported.”
What she needs not to argue: 7. She needs to feel validated and understood. Instead she feels unsupported, unloved, and resentful.
The hidden reason she is arguing: 8. “I don’t like it when he expects me to be more detached. It makes me feel like it is wrong or weak to have feelings.”
What she needs not to argue: 8. She needs to feel respected and cherished, especially when she is sharing her feelings. Instead she feels unsafe and unprotected.
Though all these painful feelings and needs are valid, they are generally not dealt with and communicated directly. Instead they build up inside and come bursting up during an argument. Sometimes they are directly addressed, but usually they come up and are expressed through facial expression, body posture, and tone of voice.
Men and women need to understand and cooperate with their particular sensitivities and not resent them. You will be addressing the true problem by trying to communicate in a way that fulfills your partner’s emotional needs. Arguments can then truly become mutually supportive conversations necessary to resolve and negotiate differences and disagreements.
THE ANATOMY OF AN ARGUMENT
A hurtful argument usually has a basic anatomy. Maybe you can relate to the following example.
My wife and I went on a beautiful walk and picnic. After eating, everything seemed fine until I started talking about possible investments. Suddenly she became upset that I would consider investing a certain portion of our savings in aggressive stocks. From my point of view I was only considering it, but what she heard was that I was planning it (without even considering her point of view). She became upset that I would do such a thing. I became upset with her for being upset with me, and we had an argument.
I thought she disapproved of my investment choices and argued for their validity. My argument however was fueled by my anger that she was upset with me. She argued that aggressive stocks were too risky. But really she was upset that I would consider this investment without exploring her ideas on the subject. In addition she was upset that I was not respecting her right to be upset. Eventually I became so upset that she apologized to me for misunderstanding and mistrusting me and we cooled down.
Later on, after we had made up, she posed this question. She said, “Many times when we argue, it seems that I get upset about something, and then you get upset that I am upset, and then I have to apologize for upsetting you. Somehow I think something is missing. Sometimes I would like you to tell me you are sorry for upsetting me.”
Immediately I saw the logic of her point of view. Expecting an apology from her did seem rather unfair, especially when I upset her first. This new insight transformed our relationship. As I shared this experience in my seminars I discovered that thousands of women could immediately identify with my wife’s experience. It was another common male/female pattern. Let’s review the basic pattern.
1. A woman expresses her upset feelings about “XYZ.”
2. A man explains why she shouldn’t be upset about “XYZ.”
3. She feels invalidated and becomes more upset. (She is now more upset about being invalidated than about “XYZ.”)
4. He feels her disapproval and becomes upset. He blames her for upsetting him and expects an apology before making up.
5. She apologizes and wonders what happened, or she becomes more upset and the argument escalates into a battle.
With a clearer awareness of the anatomy of an argument, I was able to solve this problem in a fairer way. Remembering that women are from Venus, I practiced not blaming her for being upset. Instead I would seek to understand how I had upset her and show her that I cared. Even if she was misunderstanding me, if she felt hurt by me I needed to let her know that I cared and was sorry.
When she would become upset I learned first to listen, then genuinely to try to understand what she was upset about, and then to say, “I’m sorry that I upset you when I said …” The result was immediate. We argued much less.
Sometimes, however, apologizing is very difficult. At those times I take a deep breath and say nothing. Inside I try to imagine how she feels and discover the reasons from her point of view. Then I say, “I’m sorry you feel so upset.” Although this is not an apology it does say “I care,” and that seems to help a lot.
Men rarely say “I’m sorry” because on Mars it means you have done something wrong and you are apologizing.
Men rarely say “I’m sorry” because on Mars it means you have done something wrong and you are apologizing. Women, however, say “I’m sorry” as a way to say “I care about what you are feeling.” It doesn’t mean they are apologizing for doing something wrong. The men reading this who rarely say “I am sorry” can create wonders by learning to use this aspect of the Venusian language. The easiest way to derail an argument is to say “I’m sorry.”
Most arguments escalate when a man begins to invalidate a woman’s feelings and she responds to him disapprovingly. Being a man, I’ve had to learn to practice validating. My wife practiced expressing her feelings more directly without disapproving of me. The result was fewer fights and more love and trust. Without having this new awareness we probably would still be having the same arguments.
Most arguments escalate when a man begins to invalidate a woman’s feelings and she responds to him disapprovingly.
To avoid painful arguments it is important to recognize how men unknowingly invalidate and how women unknowingly send messages of disapproval.
How Men Unknowingly Start Arguments
The most common way men start arguments is by invalidating a woman’s feelings or point of view. Men don’t realize how much they invalidate.
For example, a man may make light of a woman’s negative feelings. He might say “Ah, don’t worry about it.” To another man this phrase would seem friendly. But to a female intimate partner it is insensitive and hurts.
In another example, a man might try to resolve a woman’s upset by saying “It’s not such a big deal.” Then he offers some practical solution to the problem, expecting her to be relieved and happy. He doesn’t understand that she feels invalidated and unsupported. She cannot appreciate his solution until he validates her need to be upset.
A very common example is when a man has done something to upset a woman. His instinct is to make her feel better by explaining why she shouldn’t be upset. He confidently explains that he has a perfectly good, logical, and rational reason for what he did. He has no idea that this attitude makes her feel as though she has no right to be upset. When he explains himself, the only message she may hear is that he doesn’t care about her feelings.
For her to hear his good reasons, she first needs him to hear her good reasons for being upset. He needs to put his explanations on hold and listen with understanding. When he simply starts to care about her feelings she will start to feel supported.
This change in approach takes practice but can be achieved. Generally, when a woman shares feelings of frustration, disappointment, or worry every cell in a man’s body instinctively reacts with a list of explanations and justifications designed to explain away her upset feelings. A man never intends to make matters worse. His tendency to explain away feelings is just Martian instinct.
By understanding that his automatic gut reactions in this instance are counterproductive, a man can, however, make this shift. Through a growing awareness and his experiences of what works with a woman, a man can make this change.
How Women Unknowingly Start Arguments
The most common way women unknowingly start arguments is by not being direct when they share their feelings. Instead of directly expressing her dislike or disappointment, a woman asks rhetorical questions and unknowingly (or knowingly) communicates a message of disapproval. Even though sometimes this is not the message she wants to give it is generally what a man will hear.
The most common way women unknowingly start arguments is by not being direct when they share their feelings.
For example, when a man is late, a woman may feel “I don’t like waiting for you when you are late” or “I was worried that something had happened to you.” When he arrives, instead of directly sharing her feelings she asks a rhetorical question like “How could you be so late?” or “What am I supposed to think when you’re so late?” or “Why didn’t you call?”
Certainly asking someone “Why didn’t you call?” is OK if you are sincerely looking for a valid reason. But when a woman is upset the tone of her voice often reveals that she is not looking for a valid answer but is making the point that there is no acceptable reason for being late.
When a man hears a question like “How could you be so late?” or “Why didn’t you call?” he does not hear her feelings but instead hears her disapproval. He feels her intrusive desire to help him be more responsible. He feels attacked and becomes defensive. She has no idea how painful her disapproval is to him.
Just as women need validation, men need approval. The more a man loves a woman the more he needs her approval. It is always there in the beginning of a relationship. Either she gives him the message that she approves of him or he feels confident that he can win her approval. In either case the approval is present.
Even if a woman has been wounded by other men or her father she will still give approval in the beginning of the relationship. She may feel “He is a special man, not like others I have known.”
A woman withdrawing that approval is particularly painful to a man. Women are generally oblivious of how they pull away their approval. And when they do pull it away, they feel very justified in doing so. A reason for this insensitivity is that women really are unaware of how significant approval is for men.
A woman can, however, learn to disagree with a man’s behavior and still approve of who he is. For a man to feel loved he needs her to approve of who he is, even if she disagrees with his behavior. Generally when a woman disagrees with a man’s behavior and she wants to change him, she will disapprove of him. Certainly there may be times when she is more approving and less approving of him, but to be disapproving is very painful and hurts him.
Most men are too ashamed to admit how much they need approval. They may go to great lengths to prove they don’t care. But why do they immediately become cold, distant, and defensive when they lose a woman’s approval? Because not getting what they need hurts.
One of the reasons relationships are so successful in the beginning is that a man is still in a woman’s good graces. He is still her knight in shining armor. He receives the blessings of her approval and, as a result, rides high. But as soon as he begins to disappoint her, he falls from grace. He loses her approval. All of a sudden he is cast out into the doghouse.
A man can deal with a woman’s disappointment, but when it is expressed with disapproval or rejection he feels wounded by her. Women commonly interrogate a man about his behavior with a disapproving tone. They do this because they think it will teach him a lesson. It does not. It only creates fear and resentment. And gradually he becomes less and less motivated.
To approve of a man is to see the good reasons behind what he does. Even when he is irresponsible or lazy or disrespectful, if she loves him, a woman can find and recognize the goodness within him. To approve is to find the loving intention or the goodness behind the outside behavior.
To treat a man as if he has no good reason for what he does is to withhold the approval she so freely gave in the beginning of the relationship. A woman needs to remember that she can still give approval even when she disagrees.
One critical pair of problems from which arguments arise
1. The man feels that the woman disapproves of his point of view.
2. Or the woman disapproves of the way the man is talking to her.
When He Needs Her Approval the Most
Most arguments occur not because two people disagree but because either the man feels that the woman disapproves of his point of view or the woman disapproves of the way he is talking to her. She often may disapprove of him because he is not validating her point of view or speaking to her in a caring way. When men and women learn to approve and validate, they don’t have to argue. They can discuss and negotiate differences.
When a man makes a mistake or forgets to do an errand or fulfill some responsibility, a woman doesn’t realize how sensitive he feels. This is when he needs her love the most. To withdraw her approval at this point causes him extreme pain. She may not even realize she is doing it. She may think she is just feeling disappointed, but he feels her disapproval.
One of the ways women unknowingly communicate disapproval is in their eyes and tone of voice. The words she chooses may be loving, but her look or the tone of her voice can wound a man. His defensive reaction is to make her feel wrong. He invalidates her and justifies himself.
Men are most prone to argue when they have made a mistake or upset the woman they love.
Men are most prone to argue when they have made a mistake or upset the woman they love. If he disappoints her, he wants to explain to her why she should not be so upset. He thinks his reasons will help her to feel better. What he doesn’t know is that if she is upset, what she needs most is to be heard and validated.
HOW TO EXPRESS YOUR DIFFERENCES WITHOUT ARGUING
Without healthy role models, expressing differences and disagreements can be a very difficult task. Most of our parents either did not argue at all or when they did it quickly escalated into a fight. The following chart reveals how men and women unknowingly create arguments and suggests healthy alternatives.
In each of the types of arguments listed below I first provide a rhetorical question that a woman might ask and then show how a man might interpret that question. Then I show how a man might explain himself and how a woman could feel invalidated by what she hears. Finally I suggest how men and women can express themselves to be more supportive and avoid arguments.
THE ANATOMY OF AN ARGUMENT
1. When He Comes Home Late
Her rhetorical question: When he arrives late she says “How could you be so late?” or “Why didn’t you call?” or “What am I supposed to think?”
The message he hears: The message he hears is “There is no good reason for you to be late! You are irresponsible. I would never be late. I am better than you.”
What he explains: When he arrives late and she is upset he explains “There was a lot of traffic on the bridge” or “Sometimes life can’t be the way you want” or “You can’t expect me to always be on time.”
The message she hears: What she hears is “You shouldn’t be upset because I have these good and logical reasons for being late. Anyway, my work is more important than you, and you are too demanding!”
How she can be less disapproving: She could say “I really don’t like it when you are late. It is upsetting to me. I would really appreciate a call next time you are going to be late.”
How he can be more validating: He says “I was late, I’m sorry I upset you.” Most important is to just listen without explaining much. Try to understand and validate what she needs to feel loved.
2. When He Forgets Something
Her rhetorical question: When he forgets to do something, she says “How could you forget?” or“When will you ever remember?” or “How am I supposed to trust you?”
The message he hears: The message he hears is “There is no good reason for forgetting. You are stupid and can’t be trusted. I give so much more to this relationship.”
What he explains: When he forgets to do something and she gets upset he explains “I was real busy and just forgot. These things just happen sometimes” or “It’s not such a big deal. It doesn’t mean I don’t care.”
The message she hears: What she hears is “You shouldn’t get so upset over such trivial matters. You are being too demanding and your response is irrational. Try to be more realistic. You live in a fantasy world.”
How she can be less disapproving: If she is upset, she could say “I don’t like it when you forget.” She could also take another effective approach and simply not mention that he has forgotten something and just ask again, saying “I would appreciate it if you would….”(He will know he has forgotten.)
How he can be more validating: He says “I did forget Are you angry with me?” Then let her talk without making her wrong for being angry. As she talks she will realize she is being heard and soon she will feel very appreciative of him.
3. When He Returns from His Cave
Her rhetorical question: When he comes back from his cave, she says “How could you be so unfeeling and cold?” or “How do you expect me to react?” or “How am I supposed to know what’s going on inside you?”
The message he hears: The message he hears is “There is no good reason for pulling away from me. You are cruel and unloving. You are the wrong man for me. You have hurt me so much more than I have ever hurt you.”
What he explains: When he comes back from his cave and she is upset he explains “I needed some time alone, it was only for two days. What is the big deal?” or “I didn’t do anything to you. Why does it upset you so?”
The message she hears: What she hears is “You shouldn’t feel hurt or abandoned, and if you do, I have no empathy for you. You are too needy and controlling. I will do whatever I want, I don’t care about your feelings.”
How she can be less disapproving: If it upsets her she could say “I know you need to pull away at times but it still hurts when you pull away. I’m not saying you are wrong but it is important to me for you to understand what I go through.”
How he can be more validating: He says “I understand it hurts when I pull away. It must be very painful for you when I pull away. Let’s talk about it.” (When she feels heard then it is easier for her to accept his need to pull away at times.)
4. When He Disappoints Her
Her rhetorical question: When he disappoints her, she says “How could you do this?” or “Why can’t you do what you say you are going to do?” or “Didn’t you say you would do it?” or “When will you ever learn?”
The message he hears: The message he hears is “There is no good reason for disappointing me. You are an idiot. You can’t do anything right. I can’t be happy until you change!”
What he explains: When she is disappointed with him, he explains “Hey, next time I’ll get it right” or “It’s not such a big deal” or “But I didn’t know what you meant.”
The message she hears: What she hears is “If you are upset it is your fault. You should be more flexible. You shouldn’t get upset, and I have no empathy for you.”
How she can be less disapproving: If she is upset she could say “I don’t like being disappointed. I thought you were going to call. It’s OK and I need you to know how it feels when you …
How he can be more validating: “He says “I understand I disappointed you. Let’s talk about it How did you feel?” Again let her talk. Give her a chance to be heard and she will feel better. After a while say to her “What do you need from me now to feel my support?” or “How can I support you now?”
5. When He Doesn’t Respect Her Feelings and Hurts Her
Her rhetorical question: When he doesn’t respect her feelings and hurts her, she says “How could you say that?” or “How could you treat me this way?” or “Why can’t you listen to me?” or “Do you even care about me anymore?” or “Do I treat you this way?”
The message he hears: The message he hears is “You are a bad and abusive person. I am so much more loving than you. I will never forgive you for this. You should be punished and cast out. This is all your fault.”
What he explains: When he doesn’t respect her feelings and she gets even more upset, he explains “Look, I didn’t mean that” or “I do listen to you; see I am doing so right now” or “I don’t always ignore you” or “I am not laughing at you.”
The message she hears: What she hears is “You have no right to be upset. You are not making any sense. You are too sensitive, something is wrong with you. You are such a burden.”
How she can be less disapproving: She could say “I don’t like the way you are talking to me. Please stop” or “You are being mean and I don’t appreciate it. I want to take a time-out” or “This is not the way I wanted to have this conversation. Let’s start over” or “I don’t deserve to be treated this way. I want to take a time-out” or “Would you please not interrupt” or “Would you please listen to what I am saying.” (A man can respond best to short and direct statements. Lectures or questions are counterproductive.)
How he can be more validating: He says “I’m sorry, you don’t deserve to be treated that way.” Take a deep breath and just listen to her response. She may carry on and say something like “You never listen.” When she pauses, say “You are right. Sometimes I don’t listen. I’m sorry, you don’t deserve to be treated that way Let’s start over. This time we will do it better.” Starting a conversation over is an excellent way to keep an argument from escalating. If she doesn’t want to start over don’t make her feel wrong. Remember, if you give her the right to be upset then she will be more accepting and approving.
6. When He Is in a Hurry and She Doesn’t Like It
Her rhetorical question: She complains “Why are we always in a hurry?” or “Why do you always have to rush places?”
The message he hears: The message he hears is “There is no good reason for this rushing! You never make me happy. Nothing will ever change you. You are incompetent and obviously you don’t care about me.”
What he explains: He explains “It’s not so bad” or “This is the way it has always been” or “There is nothing we can do about it now” or “Don’t worry so much; it will be fine.”
The message she hears: What she hears is “You have no right to complain. You should be grateful for what you have and not be such a dissatisfied and unhappy person. There is no good reason to complain, you are bringing everyone down.”
How she can be less disapproving: If she feels upset she can say “It’s OK that we are rushing and I don’t like it. It feels like we’re always rushing” or “I love it when we are not in a hurry and I hate it sometimes when we have to rush, I just don’t like it. Would you plan our next trip with fifteen minutes of extra time?”
How he can be more validating: He says “I don’t like it either. I wish we could just slow down. It feels so crazy.” In this example he has related to her feelings. Even if a part of him likes to rush, he can best support her in her moment of frustration by expressing how some part of himself sincerely relates to her frustration.
7. When She Feels Invalidated in a Conversatio
Her rhetorical question: When she feels unsupported or invalidated in a conversation, she says “Why did you say that?” or “Why do you have to talk to me this way?” or “Don’t you even care about what I’m saying?” or “How can you say that?”
The message he hears: The message he hears is “There is no good reason for treating me this way. Therefore you do not love me. You do not care. I give you so much and you give back nothing!”
What he explains: When she feels invalidated and gets upset, he explains “But you are not making sense” or “But that is not what I said” or “I’ve heard all this before.”
The message she hears: What she hears is “You have no right to be upset. You are irrational and confused. I know what is right and you don’t. I am superior to you. You cause these arguments, not me.”
How she can be less disapproving: She could say “I don’t like what you are saying. It feels as if you are judging me. I don’t deserve that. Please understand me” or “I’ve had a hard day. I know this is not all your fault. And I need you to understand what I’m feeling. OK?” or she can simply overlook his comments and ask for what she wants, saying “I am in such a bad mood, would you listen to me for a while? It will help me feel so much better.” (Men need lots of encouragement to listen.)
How he can be more validating: He says “I’m sorry it’s not comfortable for you. What are you hearing me say?” By giving her a chance to reflect back what she has heard then he can again say “I’m sorry. I understand why you didn’t like it.” Then simply pause. This is a time to listen. Resist the temptation to explain to her that she is misinterpreting what you said. Once the hurt is there it needs to be heard if it is to be healed. Explanations are helpful only after the hurt is healed with some validation and caring understanding.
GIVING SUPPORT AT DIFFICULT TIMES
Any relationship has difficult times. They may occur for a variety of reasons, like loss of a job, death, illness, or just not enough rest. At these difficult times the most important thing is to try to communicate with a loving, validating, and approving attitude. In addition we need to accept and understand that we and our partners will not always be perfect. By learning successfully to communicate in response to the smaller upsets in a relationship it becomes easier to deal with the bigger challenges when they suddenly appear.
In each of the above examples I have placed the woman in the role of being upset with the man for something he did or didn’t do. Certainly men can also be upset with women, and any of my suggestions listed above apply equally to both sexes. If you are in a relationship, asking your partner how he or she would respond to the suggestions listed above is a useful exercise.
Take some time when you are not upset with your partner to discover what words work best for them and share what works best for you. Adopting a few “prearranged agreed-upon statements” can be immensely helpful to neutralize tension when conflict arises.
Also, remember that no matter how correct your choice of words, the feeling behind your words counts most. Even if you were to use the exact phrases listed above, if your partner didn’t feel your love, validation, and approval the tension would continue to increase. As I mentioned before, sometimes the best solution for avoiding conflict is to see it coming and lie low for a while. Take a time-out to center yourself so that you can then come together again with greater understanding, acceptance, validation, and approval.
Making some of these changes may at first feel awkward or even manipulative. Many people have the idea that love means “saying it like it is.” This overly direct approach, however, does not take into account the listener’s feelings. One can still be honest and direct about feelings but express them in a way that doesn’t offend or hurt. By practicing some of the suggestions listed above, you will be stretching and exercising your ability to communicate in a more caring and trusting manner. After a while it will become more automatic.
If you are presently in a relationship and your partner is attempting to apply some of the above suggestions, keep in mind that they are trying to be more supportive. At first their expressions may seem not only unnatural but insincere. It is not possible to change a lifetime of conditioning in a few weeks. Be careful to appreciate their every step; otherwise they may quickly give up.
AVOIDING ARGUMENTS THROUGH LOVING COMMUNICATION
Emotionally charged arguments and quarrels can be avoided if we can understand what our partner needs and remember to give it. The following story illustrates how when a woman communicates directly her feelings and when a man validates those feelings an argument can be avoided.
I remember once leaving for a vacation with my wife. As we drove off in the car and could finally relax from a hectic week, I expected Bonnie to be happy that we were going on such a great vacation. Instead she gave a heavy sigh and said, “I feel like my life is a long, slow torture.”
I paused, took a deep breath, and then replied, “I know what you mean, I feel like they are squeezing every ounce of life out of me.” As I said this I made a motion as if I were wringing the water out of a rag.
Bonnie nodded her head in agreement and to my amazement she suddenly smiled and then changed the subject. She started talking about how excited she was to go on this trip. Six years ago this would not have happened. We would have had an argument and I would have mistakenly blamed it on her.
I would have been upset with her for saying her life was a long, slow torture. I would have taken it personally and felt that she was complaining about me. I would have become defensive and explained that our life was not a torture and that she should be grateful that we were going on such a wonderful vacation. Then we would have argued and had a long, torturous vacation. All this would have happened because I didn’t understand and validate her feelings.
This time, I understood she was just expressing a passing feeling. It wasn’t a statement about me. Because I understood this I didn’t get defensive. By my comment about being wrung out she felt completely validated. In response, she was very accepting of me and I felt her love, acceptance, and approval. Because I have learned to validate her feelings, she got the love she deserved. We didn’t have an argument.