What's Your "Argument Cycle"?

Author:
Sharon May, Ph.D. and Alan Hart


Are your disagreements with your spouse productive? Are you both able to be heard and understood, and work together for a solution that benefits the 'us' of your marriage? Or do your differences tend to escalate and get stuck in a negative argument cycle?

Research shows that if you are able to understand and change the argument cycles that keeps you and your spouse stuck, this will have a positive impact on your marriage. We have found in working with over 1,000 couples during our Safe Haven Intensives, that although couples may have many disagreements over a variety of topics, often they're actually having only one argument cycle that repeats itself.

It often doesn't take much to start an argument. It can be a word said with a certain tone, or even a look. In response, a partner either steps into the conflict and pursues, or attempts to step away and withdraws. And if one of you isn't able to successfully repair the argument, you both end up hurt and disconnected.

You and your spouse have unique moves or positions when you argue, and together you create your own pattern or 'argument cycle.' Recognizing that you have an argument cycle is the beginning of changing the way you argue in your marriage.

All couples at one time or another get caught in the dance of an argument. Maybe your spouse says something you feel to be critical or controlling. Before you can blink an eye, hot emotions arise such as hurt, fear and anger. And in a second, you find your mood changing as you tighten up and get ready to protest what was said, or to protect your heart from what sounded like a hurtful zing.

If you are a "pursuer," you'll probably step forward saying something like, "How dare you say that? You are so critical and controlling!" And you'll become ever-louder and harsher, in an attempt to be heard and understood.

If you are a "withdrawer," you might say "That is not what I meant, you are taking it all wrong. How dare you point out in me what you yourself do!" You may then feel it best to avoid an oncoming argument and so begin to back way.

The only thing is, when a pursuer sees their spouse turn away, they'll only get louder and harsher in order to be heard. And in response, a withdrawer eventually shuts down and stonewalls.

If both you and your spouse are pursuers, the situation can escalate, with blame and negativity flying back and forth until one of you backs away or becomes weary.

If you are both withdrawers, you may close up and guard your hearts, keeping each other at arm's length. One or both of you may sulk, give the other the silent treatment for a while, or eventually, carry on as if nothing happened.

Whichever dance you and your spouse get stuck in during your argument, it more than likely fosters hurt and disconnection. And when it is all over, neither of you feel heard, understood or got what you were longing for.

Interestingly, during our Safe Haven Marriage Intensives, when we ask couples "What started the argument?" most of them can't remember. Couples argue over small, daily irritations and differences; a lot of who-meant-what and which way to do things and misunderstandings which are often insignificant and forgettable. However, what they do remember is the angry tone, negative accusations, harsh words, and the pain of the resulting disconnection.

Steps to change your argument cycle

1. As a couple, identify your unique argument cycle: Draw out the steps of your typical argument—what triggers it and who does what in reaction.

2. "Change your argument cycle, change your marriage." Remember it is the way you argue that keeps you hurt and disconnected. If you will change the way you react and talk about your hurts, thoughts and needs, it will open up new ways of relating to each other.

3. Wait before reacting. Slow down, and before you respond in the same old way, ask yourself, "What impact will my typical, old reaction have on my marriage?"

4. Share what you want your spouse to understand in a clear and kind manner. If you start an argument harshly, your spouse will match it and the two of you will escalate. If you can share your feelings and thoughts with manners and in a kind way, you will have a better chance of being heard and understood by each other.

"Don't have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels." 2 Timothy 2:23-24

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