Elizabeth was so frustrated by the continual arguing. It was discouraging to her how often and how pointlessly she and her husband argued. It seemed like they couldn’t agree on anything. “Whenever he’s upset with me he tells me I always do this or I never do that. I can’t stand it, and I argue back and tell him all the things he is doing wrong!”
“So let me guess. Then do you argue about whose fault it is, and who is to blame?” I asked. “Yes!” she replied. “So let’s start with this. If you’re talking about whose fault something is, or who’s to blame, you are always on the wrong track!” Elizabeth looked at me with wide eyes, then started to laugh out loud. “Really,” I said, “even if you manage to prove whose fault it is, what have you accomplished? You’ve just made someone feel bad, and you’ve made no progress toward resolving the problem. If you want to get somewhere, rather than recycling the same argument over and over again, you need to stop worrying about whose fault it is and start thinking about solutions. How can you make the situation better? Can you put the problem out on the table where you can work on it together, rather than just attacking one another?”
Elizabeth said to me, “But I always thought I had to be right . . .” “Yeah, I’ll bet he thinks that, too. But as soon as you can stop thinking about who’s right and who’s wrong, you can start getting somewhere.” Really in most cases, there’s truth on both sides anyway. If you stop focusing on being right, you have some space to be able to actually listen to what the other person is saying, how they’re feeling, what they’re looking for. You don’t have to agree with him, although you may find you’re not as far apart as you thought when you actually slow down and listen to each other. So many times when we’re upset, we state our opinion about something; then our partner states their opinion; then we state our opinion again, louder, because clearly they must not have heard what we said the first time; then they state their opinion again, louder, because clearly we did not hear what they said the first time, etc. One way to get out of this cycle is to acknowledge what the other person said before you say your piece. Once again, you don’t have to agree. Although if you can find any part of what they said that you can agree with, it will really help. When the other person acknowledges what we’ve said, and maybe even agrees with some part of it, we feel like we’ve been heard, and we are much more likely to actually listen to what they have to say. Now we have the beginning of a discussion, rather than the beginning of an argument.
“But what about when he says one of those things that makes me so mad, how can I not get upset?” So I told Elizabeth the story about the smart trout. “Picture a beautiful stream up in the mountains. In the stream, there is a perfect trout pool, and in it, of course, a trout. It’s a lovely summer day; the trout is just hanging out, enjoying the day. Now, along comes a fisherman. And into the trout pool, the fisherman casts a line, with a hook, and a very appealing fly. The trout looks up and sees the fly, and the hook. At this point, the trout has a choice. The trout can take the bait, and swallow the hook. Or, the trout can just ignore both the fly and the hook, and continue to enjoy its day. The smart trout ignores the hook.”
Just because there’s a stimulus, doesn’t mean there has to be a response. You can ignore the hook that your partner throws out when they’re in a bad mood. It takes practice, but you will feel so much more in control of yourself when you do this. Instead of someone else pulling the strings of your emotional reactions, you are in control of them. Because if every time someone challenges or accuses us, we react with defense and counter-attack, who’s in control? If we don’t have the ability to think about and choose our response, then we are like a puppet on a string, reacting the same way every time that string is pulled. When we recognize that we can pause, take a breath, and consider new ways of responding, we have taken the control and our power back.
Personally, I would rather be a smart trout and recognize that I have a choice in how I respond, and Elizabeth feels that way, too! She and her husband are already breaking out of the old pattern and having more discussions and fewer arguments.
Dr. Catherine Aisner is a Psychologist in South Lake Tahoe, helping individuals and couples improve the quality of their lives. She can be reached at 530-541-6696 or online at www.CatherineAisner.com.