Anatomy of an Argument
Have you ever found that you seem to be having the same argument over and over?
Sometimes this may be because you didn’t resolve the issue in the previous argument, and so inevitably, it comes up again. But sometimes, there is a déjà vu sense when the issue is new – that comes about because the pattern, what we call the anatomy, of an argument is essentially unchanged; every argument has some predictable elements.
Preconditions are the things that make you or your spouse particularly sensitive or reactive before the argument even starts. This includes things such as
- Physical discomfort – being tired, hungry, unwell or in pain – these things put us ‘on edge’
- Mental distractions – such as stress, interruptions, being late for an engagement, visitors
- Emotional distance – from inadequate time together or an unresolved hurt from an previous argument
- Psychological stress – for example, feeling vulnerable from a recent unpleasant encounter, such as at work or with a friend. Also mood-altering substances such as alcohol or drugs can be triggers for some people.
Some preconditions vary over time and can be managed with more thoughtful timing. For example, we avoid raising a difficult topic when one or both of us are tired or stressed. Before raising a potentially inflammatory topic, if we are emotionally distant, we try to spend some positive time together first. It’s helpful to recognise which preconditions make you particularly reactive and to learn how to manage them. For example, I am particularly sensitive to tiredness, becoming irritable and headache prone. So I take care to get sleep and avoid overtaxing myself when I am sleep-deprived.
A major sensitivity for all of us arises from our childhood frustrations – experiences from our childhood that left us with deep wounds and unmet needs.
These childhood frustrations continue to influence us into our adult relationships where we subconsciously seek to resolve them. For example, if you did not receive adequate attention and approval from your father, you will subconsciously be driven by this childhood frustration to seek it from father/authority figures in your adult life. This will precondition your expectations of your spouse and other relationships and set you up for hurt and disappointment.
2. Value Divergence & the need for Value Validation
Arguments usually begin with simple disagreements. At the heart of a disagreement is a divergence in values: we each attach a different importance to the issue under discussion. A simple decision, like deciding what to watch on TV, can escalate to an argument if we fail to appreciate the values each person is bringing to the discussion.
For example, one might value the activity as an opportunity to de-stress – so he or she wants something mindless and purely entertaining. The other may see the activity as a time to do something together and will therefore look for a show that invites connection and dialogue. Soon they are arguing about whether to watch a rugby game or a romantic comedy. If they fail to appreciate the value divergence, they will get fixated on what to watch and who gets their way and neither will be satisfied – it won’t be relaxing and it won’t be bonding.
Alternatively, if they are able to recognise and name their differing values, they are in a better position to validate each other’s values and find a solution that honours both – for example, an action movie may enable them to both de-stress and connect.
3. Escalation triggers
We’ve all had the experience where a conversation suddenly turns sour in a nano-second; one minute we’re discussing something quite rationally, the next we in a full blown argument. Escalation triggers are the things that you or your spouse do or say that ‘hit a hot button’ and step up the intensity of the argument, or transform a lively conversation into a heated debate. Escalation triggers include things like:
- harsh start up, going on the attack, badgering/nagging, criticism
- name calling, contemptuous comments, contradicting or belittling the other
- disrespectful comments or gestures, unloving gestures, rudeness
- globalisation (exaggerating the offence), bringing up old wounds
- defensiveness, denying the issue or responsibility
- stonewalling, refusing to engage, walking out, withdrawing, indifference
- rejecting repair attempts, resisting attempts to de-escalate the argument
- not listening properly, ignoring the other or switching off, apathy
- angry outbursts, real or threatened violence, threats of punishment or ultimatums
Research by Dr John & Julie Gottman has identified seven of these escalation triggers as being particularly destructive to relationships. For a more detailed discussion, see the Seven Deadly Habits: here
4. The Amygdala hijack
The amygdala is in the primitive part of the brain and concerned with survival. It works by comparing incoming information with emotional memories. It does this very quickly to assess whether a threat is present. The threat may be physical or emotional and if detected, the amygdala will ‘hijack’ the brain and initiate a fight, flight or freeze reaction within milliseconds. This happens before the thinking part of the brain, the neocortex, has had time to evaluate the threat.
In the case of a physical threat, the amygdala hijack can be life-saving; catch a fast moving object coming towards you in the corner of your eye, and you don’t really want to wait for your neocortex to decide if is a rock or a ping pong ball – your amygdala will galvanize your body to action. Adrenaline is released as well as a number of other hormones that readies your body for fast action. These hormones can take several hours to clear and for the body to recover its normal state.
In this highly aroused state, the brain’s capacity for rational thinking is reduced, and instinct often takes over.
The problem is that the amygdala doesn’t differentiate between a physical threat and an emotional one. So a simple, careless comment by your spouse can be enough to trigger an amygdala hijack and initiate a disproportionate reaction.
If you are prone to ‘over react’, there are strategies that you can employ to manage an amygdala hijack; do deep breathing, self-soothe and engage your thinking brain by consciously and deliberately thinking appreciative thoughts of your spouse.
The phenomenon of feeling emotionally overwhelmed is called ‘flooding’. It is associated with the activation of the fight-flight response which causes a number of physiological events including increased heart rate and blood pressure, high adrenaline, prioritisation of blood supply to large muscle groups.
When we are in this state, it is virtually impossible to rationally and calmly discuss the issue. All our valuable communication skills evaporate as we struggle to keep our emotions under control. Our good intentions to have a civil discussion are simply overwhelmed by the intense emotions
There is really only one sensible action when one or both of you are flooded – take a ‘time out’ and cool off. There can be no good gained from pursuing the discussion in this state.
Questions for Reflection:
- What are your ‘hot buttons’ – the pre-c0nditions that make you reactive and volatile?
- What ‘escalation triggers’ were present in your last argument?