Neither of us likes it when we disagree, yet we’ve had more than a few in our 28 years of marriage – some of them leading to horrible arguments. When disagreements descend into arguments, they usually become hurtful and unproductive, leaving us feeling bitter and exhausted.
But are arguments all bad, or always harmful?
Many people believe that ‘good’ couples don’t argue…ever. They believe that loving couples are so in synch that disagreements between them simply don’t exist and therefore arguments have no reason to eventuate.
Yet even the best couples have deep differences and most will have at least some history of arguments, even if now, in their more mature years, they have well-honed communication skills that enable them to navigate their differences without defaulting to destructive arguments.
So if arguments are a poor way to handle our differences does that mean that arguments are a sign of a bad marriage? If we do argue, is our marriage in trouble?
The Absence of Arguments
Interestingly, it turns out that the absence of arguments is not a good indicator of the health of a marriage. There are a few good reasons for this.
- Firstly, some couples who don’t argue are actually living detached, parallel lives; they simply don’t engage. They’ve essentially checked out of the marriage and have given up caring. They don’t argue because they don’t demand anything of each other, expect anything of the other or care what the other does or doesn’t do. Externally, they might be pleasant and courteous to each other but it’s hardly an intimate relationship. The marriage is dead on the inside. For whatever reason they’ve arrived at this place, the absence of arguments is a symptom of a decaying relationship and these couples are vulnerable to emotional and sexual affairs and/or divorce.
- Secondly, some couples don’t argue because one spouse so thoroughly dominates the other that fear drives any resistance underground. The domination might be sustained by threats of violence or financial or emotional manipulation, coupled with isolation, powerlessness, lack of confidence or ability. It’s hardly a healthy relationship. Again, the absence of arguments is a symptom of a troubled relationship.
- Finally, some couples appear not to argue because they have an avoidant style. They, in fact, do argue, they just do it in a way that is characterised by passive aggression and non-verbal resentment. These couples tend to sweep differences under the carpet while they maintain the veneer of docility. There’s no shouting or angry outbursts, just simmering resentment, sour cynicism or apathetic indifference. No arguments are evident but there is plenty of accumulating hurt since there is no means of resolution. Once again, the absence of arguments signals trouble, not health in relationship.
In contrast, many couples who appear to be vigorously arguing and debating their differences, in truth enjoy deep affection and respect. They ‘argue’ with freedom because they know that the relationship is robust enough to handle it. They can be themselves and express their values and preferences with confidence because they trust the other to honour their commitment to life-long marriage. More careful analysis would suggest that they are not in fact really arguing in the destructive sense but are engaging deeply with issues of profound significance with vigour and integrity.
Let’s be clear: we’re not advocating for arguments, simply pointing out that the presence or absence of arguments is not a reliable measure of relationship health.
Arguments are generally an unhelpful means of engagement and are risky: the high emotionality exposes us to the risk of doing or saying things that are deeply hurtful to the other and can leave lasting wounds if not fully forgiven and healed. That’s actually the main issue with arguing – it’s not our differences that are the problem, it’s the damage done when we are clumsy, demanding, hurtful or disrespectful in the way we argue.
Rightly or wrongly, arguments happen. Whatever the trigger, according to author and therapist Sue Johnson, arguments between lovers are essentially a ‘protest against disconnection’. The subtext of every argument is a question: Do you care about me? Love me? Know me?
The next time you find yourself in the midst of an argument, step back; realise you need to change the way you are engaging but don’t disengage… your argument is a sign of a hunger to be connected, known and loved. Work with that and don’t run from it.