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How to Argue Lovingly
Russell, Ph.D., MFT
January 31, 2001
My first argument with David began as we attempted
to make the bed. Really. He liked to make the bed military style
and I, with all my physical problems, wanted the sheets free for
my constantly cramping pigeon-toed feet.
As we argued, several things became real apparent.
He was not my ex-husband.
I was not his ex-wife.
He was not my mother.
I was not his mother.
He didn't want to hurt me.
I didn't want to hurt him.
He was not any of the people who had hurt me.
I was not any of the people who had hurt him.
In the midst of a tumultuous argument, you have uninvited visitors
in your home, creating chaos, stirring up trouble, telling stories,
and being downright rude. If these were real live people invading
your home, you'd call the police! Or at least throw them out.
How do you throw them out? The answer is in my next true story,
which is about my first counseling job.
The title was `relief evening counselor'. I later figured out that
I was the `relief' or substitute because they couldn't keep anyone
in this position!
A halfway house for women just out of prison was an incredibly stupid
and dangerous job. My hours were from 6 PM to 12 Midnight. There
were no other staff present, no guards, no emergency phone, and
no safety arrangements for anyone. Had I been a little older, I
would have known better than to take the job!
I was not yet trained as a counseling; and, in fact, had only attended
one community class for paraprofessional type counseling. In that
class, however, I learned this very profound and essential fact.
The greatest need all people have is to be heard and understood.
Regrettably, this does not happen as often as it should. Instead,
we act out the `triggering response' from our pasts. Imagine little
buttons all over you. Each button is attached to your stored feelings,
thoughts and past hurts from every painful fight you have ever had
Your partner says something, like David did, about The Right Way
to make the bed. And your buttons get pushed, like mine. His tone
of voice, his confidence that he was absolutely right, and his body
language pushed my buttons, surprisingly enough, from every doctor's
visit I had ever had. And there I was, no longer in present time,
but back as a child in the doctor's office being misunderstood and
pushed around. (Once I was even hit by the nurse for crying.)
Then, I said something totally unrelated to our current dilemma,
but out of my past. And I pushed his buttons. And we were off and
running. What a mess! It is a wonder people ever get to be in love!
The counseling class taught that the cure for this triggering response
is listening. They taught a form of active listening, where you
listen carefully to what is being said. You don't argue no matter
how outlandish the other person's statements may seem. This is very
hard. In the midst of a real fight, it takes a serious amount of
self-control. We were encouraged to practice frequently.
Back to the halfway house where there was a woman out of control.
She had a scissors in her hand and wanted to kill another woman.
She was actually walking rapidly from one part of the house to another
as I tried to do something. The only weapon I had was from the counseling
class: my understanding of active listening.
I followed her repeating in my own words everything she said. I
didn't argue with her. I just repeated as best I could her feelings.
What happened next is a very permanent photographic image in my
mind! She stopped in the middle of a hallway. Her entire body language
changed. Best of all she told me what was bothering her. And that
was the end of the danger.
Much later, it occurred to me that if this would work in the midst
of a physically dangerous situation, it would probably work in the
midst of an emotionally dangerous situation. This could solve an
argument! Only one of us had to stay out of the fight. One of us
had to keep those historical people at bay long enough to listen.
In the beginning, that person was me.
It always worked, when I had the emotional stamina to refrain from
acting out my dramas and listen to what he had to say. Just like
the woman in the halfway house, he would stop, his entire body language
would change, and he would tell me what was bothering him. Then,
and only then, could he hear what was bothering me.
Then we would talk like the loving people we were. I was concerned
about his feelings and he was concerned about mine. Finally, we
could solve the issue in a way that benefited both of us.
Compliments of Laura
Russell, Ph.D., MFT
About this Contributor:
I am a Licensed Marriage
and Family Therapist in Torrance California and National Board Certified
Counselor with a Clinical Mental Health Specialization. I work most
often with the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults
and children. On a personal note, I have had CFIDS and Fibromyalgia
for the past 10 years and have much to say on coping with these
conditions. Additionally, since the hospice care and death of my
husband, I also write about grief and loss.