WIthin the animal kingdom, if you’re a lion, and another lion encroaches on your territory, you roar and growl to let the other guy know this is your space. Testing the water, he roars and growls right back at you. Often, after a series of traded threats, the outsider will stand down, and the argument dissipates. Occasionally, the other lion does not back off and a bloody fight ensues until one is mortally injured or submits. Sound familiar? How often do we argue with our significant others, our siblings, our parents, our friends with the overwhelming need to be right, to be the victor? And what’s wrong with that? Well, wrong is a matter of perspective, but I will say that we are not lions…most of us, anyway.
In our animalistic past, we did in fact have to fight with others to protect ourselves, our family, our territory. In that sense, arguing or fighting is a survival instinct, a threat response. The problem is that during an argument, unless we are very conscious of our feelings, thought processes, prejudices, etc., then our brain automatically defers to that instinct. This means that every time we get into it with someone, the instinctual response is to be right, to dominate. While this may work for animals, it doesn’t yield such effective results for us.
“If you’re arguing with someone for more than five minutes, chances are it’s not about them or their actions. It’s about you.”
When I first heard that, I thought I understood, but it has taken me many years to decipher that statement. I’m still finding deeper truth in those words every time I engage in an argument. I’m realizing that staying present in those tough situations is paramount. By ‘present,’ I mean taking a moment to breathe, check-in with oneself, and to honestly examine what is there. We cannot argue effectively if we are unaware of what is going on inside. Furthermore, once we confront those thoughts and emotions, we must learn to accept. For instance, if you’re furious, allow yourself to feel furious. Notice, I did not say act furious. But how can I feel something and not let it affect my actions? Isn’t that just repression? Let’s see.
Christina (my significant other) left the country for two weeks with some friends. I wasn’t able to accompany her due to work and a few other obligations. We’ve been together for eight years, and it had been a while since we had spent any extended time apart. So we agreed that we would set aside some time each day to check-in. One morning, we had begun one such conversation when suddenly the rest of the group arrived at her room and wanted to have breakfast. She told me that she had to go and I asked if we were going to speak later. She was getting flustered and couldn’t give me a straight answer because she was unsure of the plans for the day. I said, “fine” and we hung up.
I was furious. I felt completely dejected and blown off. In my fury, I sent her a very nasty message telling her how ridiculous I thought it was that she couldn’t make a few minutes for me, and blaming her for being inconsiderate and cruel. In turn, she called me back, full of anger, and told me how inconsiderate I was acting. And so we argued and blamed each other for everything and anything. We became two ferocious lions trying to subdue each other.
I had to sit with my fury that day, which was a good thing. It allowed me to examine what was really happening. It had been a long time since I had experienced that sort of anger. Why now? I sat in a meditative state. I focused on my breath first to calm myself, and then on the anger. I allowed the thoughts and feelings to flow. I realized two things. First, when Christina blew me off, I wanted revenge. I wanted her to experience the pain I felt. This realization led to the next: I was feeling lonely and insecure being so far from her for the first time in years. I felt how much I really missed her.
The next day, we finally spoke and I told her what I had discovered. There was resistance at first. She was still angry. In turn, I felt my own lingering anger start to rise up. Instead of reacting, I thought about what I had learned. I sat and listened to her talk. She confided that she was feeling stressed out because the trip was non-stop activity, and she was catching a cold. She told me that the way I had acted the day before had really hurt her and made her feel guilty. I apologized for my incendiary behavior, but I also calmly told her that when she more or less hung up on me, I had felt devalued and unimportant. She then apologized, and admitted she could have handled the situation better. We both admitted to still feeling a little angry, and that was OK. No one won. No one lost.
Enslaved to the Unconsciousness
Get the picture? Now imagine what that situation could have been if we had started in the place we ended. Maybe I would have started the conversation that day with the feelings I had been experiencing. In turn, she may have also told me about her troubles. The point is that even before the fight began, we had not been conscious of our mental/emotional processes. If we had, it may not have happened. Or it may have happened regardless, but we would have approached it differently. We would have been able to have a constructive argument from the get-go, which probably would have dissipated much sooner.
We get tangled up in our anger and it blinds us to the truth. The minute that occurs, we start growling, roaring, and blaming. Only when Christina and I spoke peacefully, candidly, and honestly did the healing begin. It then became not about who was right, but about how we were feeling. Why is this so effective? Because you cannot argue with emotion. Your feelings are your feelings and no one can tell you otherwise. The difficult part is learning how to speak openly about those emotions. It can be a frightening and vulnerable position, but those are just more insecurities we must acknowledge and accept.
The bottom line is that when we argue with someone else, it is about what’s going on inside of us. When we realize that, then argument can be an enormously constructive part of life and love. As such, learning how to argue constructively is a must if you want to be in any long-term relationship—romantic, familial, or platonic.
Agree? Disagree? How do you handle arguments in your life?