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Fix Your Arguing Style!
Five Tips for Breaking Free of The Drama Habit and
Developing a Healthier Arguing Style
Summary: Excellent suggestions about how you can move away from over-dramatizing conflict and arguments in your relationships, and move to a more constructive arguing style with your spouse, children and family.
We all feel angry from time to time, but feeling angry and acting like a raging, out-of-control child during moments of anger are two very different things. And when anger “crosses the line” in the context of an intimate relationship, it can cause extensive—and sometimes even irreparable—discord and damage. Because rage is such a primal emotion—indeed it is a feeling that we have all been familiar with almost all of our lives—most of us can tap into our reservoirs of anger in the blink of an eye, often without even reflecting on what we are doing, or why we are doing it.
Moreover, to put it rather bluntly, "drama lovers" or "dramaholics" will sometimes pick fights with their partners or friends or relatives just to experience the high or the rush that an agitated, worked up, melodramatic state seems to provide for them. (I should know, because in my younger days, I used to be quite a drama queen myself). Drama addicts feel—or, more precisely, they claim to feel—“more alive” when they are in the process of stirring up trouble, because trouble—or drama, or emotional upheaval—just happens to be the one thing that really gets their blood pumping and their hearts racing.
Of course, the biggest problem with throwing temper tantrums whenever we feel like it—just as we did when we were very small children—is that whenever we succumb to this particular temptation, we are actually allowing ourselves to take the easy way out.
It can be difficult to break out of the drama habit, and it can require a considerable amount of discipline and practice, but the effort is well worthwhile, because out-of-control drama and rage have led to the unfortunate and untimely demise of far too many relationships that were once very loving and happy.
That said, here are five practical, tried and true techniques to help you “drop the drama habit” and argue more constructively with your significant other (or anyone else, for that matter):
1. When arguing with your partner, keep the discussion focused like a laser beam on the matter at hand, and don’t deviate from your main points.
Let’s say a husband and wife are having a tense argument about who does what around the house, and the wife feels that she does far more housework than her husband. In such a case, it is not only appropriate, but it is actually incredibly important for her to speak her mind, rather than allowing her feelings to fester and grow into a huge, seething ball of resentment over the course of time. However, it is just as important for her to keep her statements focused on the matter at hand, namely, the housework. This cannot be emphasized enough. In other words, no matter how angry she may be feeling inside, it would be unfair, inappropriate, and potentially quite cruel of her to allow a heated (but focused) conversation about the division of labor in the household to degenerate into an insult-ridden, full-scale attack on her husband, in which she rattles off all of his flaws and every mistake he has ever made during the course of their marriage.
An example of straying wildly (and cruelly) from the point in an argument that is supposed to be about housework might involve saying something like: “I do all the housework around here. You are unbelievably lazy. Actually, you’re the laziest person I’ve ever met in my entire life. If I didn’t clean up after you all the time, you’d be content just to wallow in your own filth like the big, fat, disgusting pig that you are.” In contrast, an example of staying on point in an argument about housework might involve saying something like: “I feel I do most of the chores around here, and I really need you to pitch in more than you have been doing.” People who keep their arguments with their partners clean, narrow, and focused like a laser beam on the matter at hand understand that by not hurting their partners’ feelings, there is a much greater chance that the argument can be defused quickly, and the problem can be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction
2. Don’t fight “dirty.”
That is, never lunge for your partner’s “Achille’s Heel” or emotional “soft spot” in an argument. It’s too easy, and frankly, it’s too mean.
We all know how to push our partners’ buttons, but just because we know exactly what their vulnerable points are does not mean that we should use our knowledge of their particular vulnerabilities to our advantage in the midst of an argument. To that end, any type of unfair, cruel, overly aggressive, hypercritical, going-straight-for-the-jugular style of arguing can be considered a form of fighting dirty. It is almost never justified, and it certainly is never dignified, and it’s a classic example of throwing the Golden Rule right out the window at the exact moment when we need it the most. The ongoing practice of the Golden Rule (treating others—and in this context, your significant other—exactly as you wish to be treated) is the cornerstone of all healthy relationships. Therefore, it is precisely during moments of intense conflict, anger and tension when we need to take extra precautions about how we express our feelings to our significant others (and all of our loved ones and friends). As any elementary school student who has spent any time on the playground can tell you, words can be wielded like weapons, and all mature adults —even adults who are right in the middle of a big argument with their partners—have both a responsibility and an obligation not to make weapons out of their words.
Individuals who are already in the positive, constructive habit of staying on point during their arguments tend not to hurl personal insults at their partners. They know that personal attacks resolve nothing and almost always result in hurt feelings and thwarted goals. Moreover, from a totally practical standpoint, people who stay on point in arguments with their partners usually get what they want, and best of all, they achieve that objective without resorting to cruelty. (It’s a bit like that old saying about honey attracting more flies than vinegar). To put it simply, there is never any need for a straightforward, solution-focused discussion about housework to escalate into a nasty, full-blown, insult-laced fight about everything under the sun.
Another point to consider is that partners who deliberately make an effort to conduct their relationships according to "The Golden Rule" tend to have far fewer hostile arguments than their drama-addicted, fight-seeking peers. They are also generally able to resolve the conflicts that they do have with fewer tears and heartache. Because their lives with their intimate partners tend to be more harmonious and peaceful overall, they often find their relationships—and many other facets of their lives—to be significantly more satisfying on the whole. And as an added benefit, they also tend to have better self esteem because they have worked hard to develop the necessary skills and resources to resolve their conflicts in a calmer, kinder, and more mature manner.
3. Avoid engaging in "Extreme Fighting" or "Ultimatum-Based Fighting" with your Partner.
On a related note, extreme fighting or ultimatum-based fighting are both closely related to the insult-based, attack-style dirty fighting that I have just described above. Extreme fighting is to couples what extreme sports are to athletes. People who enjoy extreme sports such as bungee jumping, sky diving, and black diamond skiing tend to be self-professed thrill junkies who only seem to find satisfaction in pushing themselves beyond their athletic limits. In a very real sense, they feel almost addicted to the adrenaline rush associated with performing death-defying stunts. Notably, the same people who crave the rush that they get from dangerous, adrenaline-producing sports might just as easily be hooked on picking fights and creating needless drama in their love lives. Often extreme fighters (much like extreme athletes) find ordinary life too boring and bland, so they feel the need to create a little added spice and excitement by fighting in an extreme, overly dramatic manner.
Also, some extreme fighters have a tendency to issue ultimatums at a moment’s notice. For instance, in a household where extreme, ultimatum-based fighting is actually the norm (as opposed to the exception), a minor argument about who is supposed to take out the trash can quickly escalate into a massive fight, with the extreme fighter in the relationship dramatically shouting that if the other partner does not take out the trash “right this minute, then it’s time for a divorce!”
Sometimes the partners of extreme fighters are also extreme fighters themselves, meaning that both partners in the pair are equally addicted to melodramatic conflicts. But interestingly, some extreme fighters have partners who are quiet and not at all interested in drama, and who actually feel quite bewildered each time a minor disagreement suddenly escalates into a massive blow-up.
Once again, just like with dirty fighting, the “takeaway message” about extreme or ultimatum-based fighting is that an insatiable craving for drama (on the part of one or both partners), often proves to be the main culprit in ending far too many once-happy relationships.
4. Try not to displace your anger at someone else on your partner.
If you’re mad at your colleague, your sister, or your friend, then express your feelings (calmly, rationally and appropriately, of course) to the person who has made you angry. Do not—I repeat, do not —take out your anger on your partner, as it is extremely unfair to do so. Think of a man who gets furious at a store clerk who has been rude to him, but instead of expressing those feelings to the clerk, he goes home and yells at his wife and children for an hour. It’s just not right.
5. Steer Clear of Passive-Aggressive Behavior with Your Partner.
Another way that people sometimes inappropriately show their rage to their partners is by engaging in what’s commonly known as passive-aggressive behavior, which is generally defined as the indirect expression of anger. For example, rather than saying something clear and straightforward, such as: “I’m angry at you about such-and-such, and we need to talk about it,” a passive-aggressive individual may try to sabotage his partner’s lunch date with a friend by calling her on her cell phone every two minutes just to bother her and disrupt her meal. Because it is so subtle, sneaky and underhanded, passive-aggressiveness is one of the least healthy ways to express anger, and it should be avoided at all costs. In fact, passive-aggressiveness may not be as loud or as obvious as picking a huge, dramatic fight, but it can actually be just as harmful and corrosive to an intimate relationship.
In conclusion, none of us behave perfectly with our significant others every minute of every day. In fact, we all have times when we feel so angry with our partners that, in spite of our best efforts, we momentarily forget about "The Golden Rule" altogether, and we end up saying something that we instantly regret. The key is not to allow a pattern of negative behavior to become the norm in our relationships. Therefore, we all need to pay very close attention to our personal arguing styles. Those of us who repeatedly fight dirty (by hurling personal insults and attacks), or engage in too much over-the-top, extreme or ultimatum-based fighting, need to put a stop to such destructive behavior immediately. Fortunately, we all have the power within us to improve our arguing techniques, to show our partners the love and respect that they deserve, and to expect the same love and respect in return.
Rachel Greene Baldino, MSW, LCSW, http://www.rachelbaldino.com, is the author of "The New Age Guide To Loving Simply: Eliminating Drama From Your Intimate Relationships." She earned her graduate degree from The Boston College Graduate School of Social Work and has worked as a therapist in a variety of settings, including a substance abuse treatment facility and a mental health clinic.
Ms. Baldino’s relationship book has been mentioned in "The Boston Globe," and she has been quoted about relationships and other topics in "For Me Magazine," "The San Francisco Bay Guardian," "The Albany Times Union," "The Tallahassee Democrat," "The Worcester Telegram & Gazette," "The Community Advocate," "The Shrewsbury Chronicle," "Match.com," "Babyzone.com," "Momstoday.com," "The Newhouse News Service," and "Indianapolis Woman."
Her first book, "Welcome to Methadonia: A Social Worker's Candid Account of Life in a Methadone Clinic" was published in 2000.
She lives in New England with her husband of fifteen years and their two young children.