How to win an argument (even with your wife)?


A conflict may strengthen or weaken a relationship all based on our conversation style. When handled well a conflict may help us understand the other person better and create deeper bonds. When handled poorly, it may result in deterioration to ultimate death of the relationship. While examples here primarily relate to marital conflicts as the psychologist who researched it specialized on the same , the learning may be extended across a team, parent-child, siblings, boss – subordinate etc. Whoever starts the conflict, you have the power to redirect it for the better, do not give it up.

Four Horsemen

Dr. Gottman, a renowned Psychologist categorizes the argumentative communication into four styles, nick named ‘Four Horsemen‘, a biblical reference to end of the world : Criticism, Contempt, defensiveness and Stonewalling.

(1) Criticism:

Generalizing a behavior that your partner exhibited.

Situation: Spouse comes late from office.

Criticism: “You always come late. You have no consideration that I have been waiting for you for the last three hours. You didn’t even bother to inform me. You just don’t care about me any more.”

When a spouse feels criticized, they often respond with contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling. So it is important to address the urge to criticize early enough to prevent the snowballing of situation.

What can be done instead? Complaint rather than criticize and Ask. Lets try to restate the above criticism into a complaint.

Complaint: “When you come late from work, I feel ignored. I feel like I am no longer important to you. Waiting for you for over three hours made me very anxious. Can you try and come early by 6 PM and inform me in advance if that would not be possible”

Cues: Use I and me statements.
Talk about your feelings, rather than second guessing their intentions.
Do not use generalizations such as ‘Always’, ‘Never’ etc
Express a positive need rather than a negative one. i.e instead of asking your partner to stop doing something, tell what you would like them to do

What to do if your partner is criticizing you?

Know that behind every criticism there is a wish. Even though your partner may have spelled it out as criticism, acknowledge their complaint and feeling. Ask them what is it that you could do to make the situation better?

Argument – Defensive

(2) Contempt:

When you address the other person with sarcasm and ridicule. This is plain disrespectful and absolutely no one deserves to be treated that way.

Situation: Spouse comes late from office.

Contempt: “ you finally found your way home. Your boss threw you out of your office or what. Why don’t you stay in your office only. No Don’t cry me a river about all the things you do to provide for the family. You think I sit and watch TV at home all day.”

Contempt is an indicator bottled up negative feelings. The discussion is no longer about the situation. Much love and respect has been lost already and it is important to renew it in the relationship.

What is to be done?
Remember the good times, the time that you fell in love with your spouse. Remember the courtship period, the special days and events that you both celebrated together. The love notes and the sweet nothings. It is easy to lose love in all the nitty gritties of every day life, which is more so the reason to remember.

Notice and appreciate your partner. Write a love note. Send flowers. Do something special to rekindle the romance.

(3) Defensiveness:

This is the most common argument type one may have seen. Defensiveness is a way of trying to protect self by redirecting the blame to one’s partner.

Blind spots: Do not forget that your partner may have a radically different perspective from yours. What was obviously hilarious to you may have been downright insulting to your partner.

Partner 1: Did you pick up the parcel on the way back home as you said.
Partner 2: I forgot. But why is it I have to pick up the parcel always. You have a vehicle too. Why can’t you do it.

Better response:
Partner 2: I completely forgot about it. Let me call them right now and check if they can do a special delivery when we would be home. Else I will pick it up in the evening when we go to the supermarket.

An Ideal response to defensiveness:
Partner 1: I thought you liked picking the parcels. Let me know if you want me to pick that up tomorrow evening.

Cues: Acknowledge your part in the problem.
Acknowledge that your partner may have a different perspective.
Take responsibility for the solution.

(4) Stonewalling:

When the listener withdraws from the discussion as a result of overwhelm. This is said to be more common among men than women. Dr.Gottman says that 85% of stonewallers are men. This is also because women like to argue a point to death.

How to respond to being stone walled?

Step 1: Stop. Remove yourself from the situation.
Step 2: Practice self-soothing. You may indulge in intensive physical exercise like a run, swim or emotionally engaging exercises like listening to soothing music, reading an engaging non-fiction, watching a movie etc.

One of the worst advice ever given in marriage is ‘Don’t go to bed angry.’ So people who believe in it, stay up late and argue through the night. Take a deep breath and go to sleep. Next day, one of you would probably realize how silly the whole point of contention was.

Do’s and Don’ts in argument:

Don’t lead every discussion to the status of relationship. Disagreement need not lead to a breakup or a divorce. Not if it is handled with care and respect.

Come back to the point of contention when it is possible to discuss without getting emotionally anchored to your point of view.

The guidelines may not eliminate arguments, but it can vastly reduce them. The rule of thumb is to have atleast five positive conversations for one negative.

Following these guidelines may not give you the chest thumping victorious feeling you hoped to get when you read the headline and hoped to find your elixir, but victory is avoiding an argument. isn’t it… you cant argue with me on that logic 😛

Recommended Read: The Man’s guide to Women – Dr. Gottman

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Priya Krishnamoorthy

Exploring the Journey of life everyday with a new outlook

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