What You Should Never Do In the Heat of An Argument

How we deal with conflict shapes the future of our relationships.

Defend, criticise, make it personal, bring up the past, freeze or stonewall. Aah, there’s nothing like a good ol’ fashioned heated squabble to strip us of our decorative defences to reveal our true selves. On reflection (pun intended,) it’s like holding up a giant mirror to our inner selves.

Last night was an eye opener. So much so, that I have pondered long enough about what happens when we argue that I was prompted to sit and write about it. Last night I turned up to my boyfriend's house. He cooked me dinner, we watched a bit of Netflix on the couch with wine — all sounds perfectly predictable and de rigueur in our Covid-19 times. Only our post couch dinner chat morphed into something increasingly tense, an ugly scene that got stuck on repeat in my brain and robbed me of sleep.

For a few weeks we had been parrying back and forth with our different opinions on Trump, his role as President and what we knew of him as a man and the role the media play in depicting him. We verbally sparred and didn’t take things too seriously.

Last night however, something happened where the room’s atmosphere transcended into something different and downright uncomfortable. A line was crossed that left me reeling and feeling confused. “Do I actually really know this person?” We have been dating a year and while I’m not naive enough to think you can get to know someone pretty quickly (it takes a mountain of shared experiences and varied circumstances to really see a person’s true colours,) I was left with a disquieting unease following our ensuing argument.

They say as humans that verbal communication only comprises 35% of our transmission of meaning while 65% of our communication is through non-verbal cues, namely, tone, body language, eye contact, physical distance between parties etc. When we enter an argument, we enter a fight or flight state of being. We either hold our ground, calmly (or not) or take off or either freeze or stonewall, overwhelmed by the stress before us.

Psychologists tell us that when we are in the throes of an argument, it’s like our brain’s are hijacked. The functionality that assists with rationality, strategy and compassion shut down. Our focus narrows on being ‘right’ and our ability to listen (if at all) to understand rather than listening to respond is diminished. In other words, we become agitated while the other one speaks, and we often formulate in our minds what to say next, rather than fully engage with the words being spoken in order to properly absorb them.

This can lead to repetition. Someone will say the same thing over and over until said point is made. Rinse, repeat cycle. No acknowledgement of the other’s words, ideas or opinions as having credibility. Just a throwing out of one view and opinion in a bid to dominate or quieten the other. Then the decibels were raised. “You don’t need to yell, I am just here,” I countered. I’ll listen better with the volume turned down low.

It’s what transpired next I didn't see coming. “You are an ignorant idiot!” Ouch!! I think I was called an idiot several times over the course of the next ten minutes. Then, to follow: “Just because you’ve watched a documentary on something, it doesn’t make you an expert.” No shit, I never claimed to be one. And then this: “For someone who’s educated, you surprise me.” There is something childlike in attacking someone’s character when an argument escalates. It’s something that should be avoided at all costs because when we ridicule someone, the core of the argument is lost, and there is a shift in power that leaves rationale and empathy in the dust.

Arguing 101: Keep to the issue and leave personal insults out of it.

If you can’t stick to the issue at hand, there is another issue lurking in the background; an elephant in the room that needs addressing. Disparaging your partner through verbal abuse, ie. calling someone an idiot is akin to saying “I have no respect for you.” Belittling someone (you supposedly care about) is a statement of power. It says I am not listening to you or giving anything you say any credibility, you are beneath me. It’s a sting that not only left me cold, but made me freeze in my tracks.

Eventually I left the room (it’s healthy to reflect back on one’s responses at times of discomfort and question how we could have better handled a situation) to take a breath. Sometimes, there is nothing to be gained in continuing. Perhaps we had simply run out of things to say and it was time to process, synthesise, reflect. I had run out of steam and my mind was clouded with uncertainty. I am old enough to know when to walk away, not acting out of passive-aggressive behaviour, but to take stock, breathe and refrain from acting on impulse. Sometimes the right words have to formulate and when the heart is beating fast and cortisol is flowing freely, the right words don’t easily come.

I could’ve remained, held counsel, but I felt I had outstayed my welcome. I leave, reverse out of the driveway only to pause and return. I want to fix this. It feels surreal and hurtful and uneasy and I want to overcome it, for us to rise above it and work through it. But when I walk back in the door, simply to talk, to wave the olive branch, I see he is in no mood to reconnect. He stares at his phone, eyes refusing to meet mine (an act of irreverence, disrespect, it’s like talking to my teenage kids!) “I don’t know why you came back,” he says. Sensing pointlessness or impending ire, I’m not sure which, I resign and leave.

Insulting your partner in an argument is steering way off course and a fast way to lose them. Raising your voice is like raising your voice when speaking to a foreigner in your native tongue, it doesn’t make for clarity, it just takes up arrogant space. Talking over the top of someone isn’t a conversation, it’s a monologue. Discussion is a two way street and listening to understand rather than listening to respond shows respect. Sometimes there is more power in the space left unfilled. Keep to the issue at hand, don’t get personal or name call. Keep the focus on what’s really being discussed and don’t digress or slide into that dangerous mud slinging as we all know mud sticks.

Arguments in relationships are natural. They can forge stronger connections and allow for growth and understanding, but only if they are carried out with mutual respect. Walk away if you have to, take stock, breathe and consider your options. Consider your adversaries words and consider their position, you’ll respect yourself for it later (and so will they.) If you know you messed up, take a healthy dose of humble pie with a decent serving of ownership. Apologise with intent and sincerity. Don’t dilute your apology with defence- we all know everything before the ‘but’ is bullshit. As the Grand Old Dame of Wisdom, Eleanor Roosevelt said herself:

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Likewise, aim to avoid making your partner feel inferior also. Be clear in your words without resorting to insults, stonewalling or personalising things. Avoid fixating on minor points, and above all else, tune into that all important non verbal communication. While we can’t always see eye to eye, it’s the way we handle our conflict that will determine the future of our relationships.

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Sam Coombs

Sam Coombs

Curious about the world & thirsty for more, Sam is a freelance copy writer, intrigued by the quirks of the human psyche, the who, what & why of us...