I wish you'd listen! (Why arguing properly is good for your relationship)
Can a divorce lawyer turned couples therapist teach Tim Dowling and his wife how to argue better? Plus: how to have better arguments in five key areas
by Tim Dowling (Guardian, Sat 17 Sep 2022 08.00)
When I leave the room, the evening news is on the television. When I return a minute later, my wife is watching a reality series about a luxury yacht crewed by halfwits. The following exchange occurs. Me: What is this? Her: You won’t like it. Me: Is this the thing about the idiots and the boat? Her: I’m never allowed to watch what I want to watch. Me: That statement is factually suspect. Her: Why are you sitting down? Me: I live here! If you’re not married, you might imagine that it would be difficult to repeat such an argument, in virtually the same form, on a regular basis over a period of years. You imagine wrong. It’s easy. What we might term the Below Deck Dispute is not among the Five Arguments All Couples (Need to) Have, as outlined in the book of that title by couples therapist Joanna Harrison, but it is listed in the appendix alongside other supplementary squabbles, where it’s called: “I don’t want to watch what you want to watch.” Like the other arguments outlined in the book, its necessity is not to be underestimated. “Sometimes just for the sake of some time together and a cheap shared experience, TV on the sofa, even if it’s your least-favourite programme, seems to be a good investment,” writes Harrison, with characteristic wisdom. Advertisement For couples who may be alarmed to hear there are five brand new arguments they need to add to their rotation, there is good news. “They’ve already had all of them, I’m sure,” says Harrison. “That’s what I wanted people to see, because I felt like I had this perspective – that I was having them, my friends were having them, and my clients were having them.” There was, she realised, very little therapeutic advice available about this landscape of low-level daily conflict, “which is just normal, because you live with someone, and you’re different from them”. The Five Arguments are in fact five broad categories of argument, on the following themes: how we communicate; how we deal with our families; how we deal with chores; how we manage distance; and how we feel about each other’s bodies. Throughout the book we are introduced to couples – Sarah and Tomas, Ryan and Josh, Evie and Ashley – having the sort of deeply familiar arguments that always seem to end this way: Sarah: I wish you could listen to me! Tomas: What do you mean? My wife and I have had all these arguments and more – arguments about why things have been left where they have been left, arguments about togetherness and space, about decisions taken without consultation, or plans insufficiently diarised. Advertisement Me: You didn’t tell me about this! My wife: I told you about it three weeks ago. Me: I’ve never even heard of this party. I might be busy. My wife: Fine, don’t come. Obviously, this argument isn’t about whether or not I will go to the party (I will). It’s not even about who is right (I am right). It’s clearly about the resentment that builds around the chore of organising a social life on behalf of someone who is both graceless and ungrateful. In the book such rows are generally followed by examples of “repairing conversations”, where the couples have a chance to dig a little deeper into their previous argument and to consider the possibility that it was about something other than how terrible Below Deck is. If these conversations sound less familiar to you, that’s because they are generally the product of counselling. “I see a bit of that in the therapy,” says Harrison, “when people take the time to learn about how to have that conversation.” Is it essentially about learning from one’s mistakes, instead of repeating them? “And being curious about them,” she says. “You really may not understand why [the dispute] is such an issue for your partner. You may think, why are they going on about this? But if you just think it’s silly to make such an issue out of it, you miss something important.” The book offers a few “curious” lines aimed at steering the argument down a more productive track, among them “Can you help me understand that?” and “What do you think that’s about?” My wife is fond of derailing an argument by saying, “I’m hearing your frustration right now.” If I choose to ignore her sarcastic tone, this serves much the same purpose. In addition to curiosity, simple acknowledgment is important: people start arguments not because they want to be right, but because they want to be heard. “If you don’t feel heard, it makes sense to try to speak more loudly or more angrily,” writes Harrison. “You may feel you have to express your feelings more vehemently – which is how we get polarised.” Once you’ve acknowledged your partner’s feelings, the possibility of compromise arises. Before she trained as a couples therapist, Harrison was a divorce lawyer, which sounds like a pretty sharp career swerve. “I was obviously drawn to work with relationships,” she says. “I think I realised that I was in the wrong forum, because I was just much more interested in the relationship stuff. Often people get into the legal forum to deal with their relationship stuff, but it isn’t necessarily a very helpful way of dealing with it. I started training as a couples therapist thinking it would make me a better divorce lawyer, but it made me realise I didn’t want to do that.” Advertisement Did her time as a divorce lawyer make her a better therapist? “I have an understanding of the landscape people are in,” she says. “When I’m working with divorcing couples, I know what they’re grappling with. I suppose I’ve picked up ideas about why people were ending their relationships.” In addition to her work as therapist, Harrison still serves as a consultant to separating couples at legal firm Family Law in Partnership. On the surface, many of the rows dramatised in the book might seem petty – they’re about moving house, working hours or different approaches to parenting – but they are all typical of the disputes Harrison encounters in her work. And petty squabbles are important – not for nothing is the book subtitled And Why the Washing-Up Matters. “Couples need to argue to sort of define themselves a bit,” says Harrison. “I’m still arguing with my husband about the washing up.” For 30 years my wife and I have been arguing about the bins. The argument is not about whose job it is to put out the bins – it’s mine. It’s about how I always need to be reminded to do my job, and how inappropriately resentful I become at having been reminded. I invariably cite this allegation as proof that I remain a tragically misunderstood figure, and then go on to handle the bins roughly. Every Tuesday, at 10pm. But even the most ordinary arguments often mask feelings of greater significance. “Our deeper fears and frustrations, and the things we may find it difficult to express openly with each other can often express themselves in the domestic world,” writes Harrison. A row can be about the washing up, and also serve as part of an ongoing negotiation of the whole relationship. “You have actually got to find a way to deal with the domestic side of things, just rubbing along together,” says Harrison. “Then there’s a deeper level – it’s quite an easy stage for any difficult feelings to play out on.” This is undoubtedly true, as I often realise once I’m alone with the bins. Then I am free to explore what proportion of my resentment is about how undervalued I feel generally – I’m only really here to do the bins, I think – and how much of it is just about the bins. Arguments about family can turn upon ex-partners or meddlesome in-laws – in the book, new parents Beena and Marco have one in which Marco very unwisely says: “What about when your parents are here? At least my mother bothers to actually try and help us.” But some rows can also be a way of negotiating how argument itself is conducted in your house, which often has more to do with your childhood than your relationship: the way your parents dealt with conflict probably differs from your partner’s experience. “When it comes to each other’s wider families, bearing all of this in mind can be of help,” writes Harrison. “You are going to have different ideas about things.”
The division of labour within a relationship – the cleaning, the cooking, the daily grind of parenting – gives rise to endless arguments, partly because it’s a disputed space where the obligation to negotiate never ends – we’re talking, after all, about the jobs no one wants to do. You think you and your partner argue about this stuff too much, but chances are you’re not arguing about it enough, or at least not in the right way. “I do think it’s the area where resentment most obviously builds up,” says Harrison. “It’s the boil that needs bursting at times. I just think people get really pissed off and resentful about feeling they’re doing too much.” The key to a productive argument, according to Harrison, is to stick to your own feelings, to listen to the feelings being expressed by your partner, and above all to stop trying to win. “If you approach your arguments as, ‘This is where I’m going to prove that I’m right, and I’m going to win this argument,’ you will just keep having them again and again,” she says. “And that’s no fun for anyone, particularly not your kids.” Me: (grabbing remote) Let’s see what else is on, shall we? My wife: I can’t bear the way you just flick back and forth and never settle on anything. Me: OK, what do you think that’s about? My wife: It’s about you being an idiot. Me: Would it help to talk about this? My wife: No. If I’ve learned anything from this book – although the above exchange would suggest I haven’t – it’s that it’s good to lean into arguments a little bit. Ultimately these are conflicts that cannot and should not be avoided – and we can use them to learn something about one another, and then move on to repair what the argument has undone. Through carefully curated conflict, we might uncover, for example, our own fear that an opportunity for a cheap shared experience is being undermined by what seems like a deliberately provocative viewing choice. For the sake of a happy marriage, would it not be better to learn to love Below Deck? “It’s a tricky one, Below Deck,” says Harrison. I take this to mean that she has seen Below Deck, and that some things lie beyond the scope of therapy.
From in-laws to sex Joanna Harrison’s tips on how to have better arguments in five key areas
Communication Keeping connected takes work. Actively make a distraction-free time to talk about difficult issues or just how you are doing. Acknowledge each other’s views – even if you don’t agree with them. Take into account the different communication styles you both learned in your families growing up. For example, one of you may be more sensitive to a critical tone than the other, and there may be good reasons for that. Don’t underestimate the power of saying sorry. Sorry can be broader than “I was wrong”; it can also be used powerfully to say: “I’m sorry I made you feel like that.” Treat arguments not as something you need to win but as an opportunity to learn something important – it’s often in the debrief after an argument that you can learn what the issue with the washing up was really all about. Dealing with each other’s families Be aware that your way of doing things may be very different from your partner’s, even on the small stuff. An open mind helps, rather than an idea that one of you is right. See arguments about each other’s family as a joint problem, not something that your partner has to deal with on their own. Both people’s feelings are important, even if hard to hear. You may need to put more effort into checking in with each other when spending time with extended family or you may need a more in-depth conversation about what your expectations are about family involvement. Comings and goings Engage together with the boundaries you want around phones and social media rather than getting irritated about it all the time. For example, some people find it helpful if their partner signals how long they are planning to spend on their phone. If you always clash when you come back together after being apart, take time to consider what might work better for you. Is it actually that you just need five minutes to yourself before taking over the kids or a bit of reassurance after one of you has been out socialising? Going off to do something fun (or even going on to your phone) will go down better if you check in on whether any jobs need doing first. Showing you have each other on your mind when you are apart – even if it’s just a quick message to keep in touch – matters. Sex and bodies Don’t see having to talk about your sex life as a failure – see it as an opportunity to understand each other better and connect better to each other’s bodies and the feelings around them, as well as to nip in the bud unhelpful narratives. Remember there’s no “right” way to have a sex life, as long as it’s safe and consensual. Physically sharing space with somebody else body can be difficult – everything from smells to noise. Be curious about the impact you have on each other and go gently when expressing your frustrations. In a changing backdrop of life and bodies, a sex life has to change, too. For example, you may want to fit a lock on the door if you’re parents, or use more lubrication (stress, hormones and medication all have an impact on a woman’s natural lubrication). Workload Don’t expect to feel the same about what needs doing. One of you may think the house needs to be tidier; the other may think this isn’t an issue. This probably isn’t going to go away unless you both change your expectations of what is actually possible. Remember to comment on the good things – it flags up what works for you. If you like it when your partner takes the bins out, tell them! The little things add up. Five Arguments All Couples (Need to) Have: and Why the Washing-Up Matters by Joanna Harrison is published by Souvenir Press, £14.99.