The Anatomy of an Argument

Imagine the following scenario:

You are a one woman wonder that has cleaned the house, folded laundry, and managed to whip up a healthy dinner for your family, all the while taking care of your children ages 3, 5, and 8.  After dinner, your husband sits down to unwind by watching the latest Sports Center.  You are absolutely exhausted and running through a mental list of what still needs to get done that night: a sink full of dirty dishes, walks for the dogs, baths for the kids, and Susie’s science homework.  You politely call into the next room, “Honey, would you mind helping out by looking over Susie’s homework?  It should just take a second….”  He mumbles back “Sure, in a minute.”

15 minutes later: you are still drying dishes and your hubby is still firmly planted on the couch completely engrossed in the latest football replay.  In the meantime, you can hear your two youngest children in the other room fighting over a toy and your oldest daughter has just told you that she needs to find a birthday present for one of her friends… by tomorrow!  By this time, you are feeling completely unsupported and ready to let off a little steam!

Do any elements of this story sound familiar?  Can you imagine the argument that might have blown up for this couple struggling to get their children’s needs met, as well as their own?

What’s a gal to do when she is stressed, tired, and clearly feels like she is in the right?

Marriage is wonderful, crazy, fun, and sometimes incredibly difficult.  Learning to “fight fair” is one of the most challenging skills that a couple can master.

Here are a few strategies that have been particularly helpful in managing arguments in my own marriage:

1.  Focus on your feelings and your responsibility in the situation.

When you are angry and stressed, it is incredibly easy to start out your sentences with “You did… such and such…” or “How could you….”  Leading with this language will probably put your spouse immediately on the defensive.  Instead, try to focus your energy on how the situation made you feel and communicate with “I” statements.

Here’s another tricky reality: you can only control you.  You can’t control your spouse.  If you want something to be different in the future, look at your own actions first.  Regardless of who is “right” or how “unfair” the situation appears, how can you facilitate change for the better?

2.  Practice listening.  If something catches you off guard, repeat back to your spouse what you think they said.

In the heat of the moment, it is easy to say something that can easily be misinterpreted.  If you are taken back by a hurtful comment, ask your spouse the following: “I hear you saying… XYZ…. is that correct?”  Communication is always easier when you are both operating from the same page.

3.  Take a break when needed.

Are there any How I Met Your Mother fans reading this post?  On Episode 22 of the first season, Marshall and Lily have a huge argument related to their upcoming wedding and decide to implement a “pause” break where they temporarily put their argument on hold.  All joking aside, what a stroke of genius in certain situations!  Sometimes, allowing each other time to cool down, regroup, and attend to other pressing matters is just the ticket.  Here’s the key: you both make it a priority to address each other’s feelings as soon as possible.  If the issue is simply dropped, be prepared to navigate the murky waters of resentment.

4. Stay in the present moment.

I recently heard someone say, “I’ve adopted the motto that it’s ok to look back at the past, but not to stare” in regard to coping with a difficult situation.  I think this mantra applies to relationship baggage, as well.  For many, anger tends to prime memories of prior negative experiences.  Instead of being upset over what happened 5 minutes ago, it’s easy for anger to quickly snowball into the 2,563 reasons why you’ve ever been annoyed with your spouse.  It’s also tempting to throw out the terms, “You never…” or “You always….”  Close the floodgates by focusing your attention and emotion on the present moment.

5. Practice reconnecting.

Learn what comforts your spouse when they are angry or upset.  James knows, for instance, that reaching out to hold my hand during a disagreement is a very reassuring gesture.  These small forms of connection can help soothe intense moments.  If it’s possible, try a little humor too.  Laughter works wonders in diffusing tension.

Common sense, right?  Easier said than done?  Definitely!  You might want to also check out Mary Lou Green’s awesome cooking metaphor for more ideas on when to speak up in your marriage and when to let things “simmer.”

These tips have served me well throughout my marriage.  We would LOVE to hear from you what works well in your relationship.  Leave a comment below to share how you will choose to “fight fair” and lovingly during your next argument.

About the Author: Candice

I married my college sweetheart and am a mama to 2 adorable Shih-Tzu puppies. I have a passion for making handmade cards, discovering new recipes, and savoring travel adventures abroad.

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23 Responses to The Anatomy of an Argument

  1. Great suggestions. We found that talking and planning ahead avoided a lot of the tension. The kids always needed baths, help with homework, practicing instruments, lunches, cleanup, etc. When we planned ahead and reviewed the evening over dinner, we all had a clearer view of our responsibilities. I found if no one has explicit responsibility for something, it rarely gets done.

  2. One of the things I highly recommend is learning your and your spouse’s Love Language. Gary Chapman wrote a book called The Five Love Languages (I review it here

    Basically everyone has a primary love language. This is how you know that people love you. You can tell someone you love them until you are blue in the face, but if their love language is physical touch and you rarely touch them – they will not believe you love them!! This is especially important with children in my opinion, but in all relationships knowing their love language (and your own) keeps you both from getting frustrated and hurt and relationships from ending miserably. It’s not totally obvious sometimes what someone’s love language is, and some people are “bilingual”, but generally here’s the highlights.

    1. Physical Touch – a big one with guys. This is physical affection (obviously), touches, kisses, hugs…
    2. Acts of Service – this is how my Mom expresses love (although it is not her love language). This is doing things for the person you love (making a meal, knitting a sweater, getting up and getting a drink for someone, mowing the lawn, paying the bills, taking out the trash…
    3. Words of Affirmation – this is me and my Mom! This is being told you are doing a good job at something, hearing “I love you,” little love notes, even wolf whistles… arguments and criticism can be especially painful for someone who needs Words of Affirmation to feel loved.
    4. Quality Time – this is spending time together. (This is my son big time! If you are not spending time with him, listening to him talk, then you do not love him!) This doesn’t have to be talking, can be just watching TV together, going places together, looking into each other’s eyes…
    5. Gifts – this is one of the few that Hubby and I do not have at all! Not that everyone doesn’t like getting gifts, but this person has a special place in their heart for the gift. It is a symbol of that person’s love for them. They can tell you all about when they got it, who gave it to them and under what circumstances. They usually keep it in a special place and take great care of it. Think “The Last Doll” in The Little Princess movie/book.

    There are tests you can take (here’s a good one, and another one, and reading the book(s) really helps, but even then, sometimes it’s hard to tell what people’s love languages are.

    1. Thanks, Mary! We love that book too. It’s definitely important to understand how your spouse receives love. What a great recap of some of the book’s main points!

  3. Ok . I will admit I am guilty of this at times. I work 7-3 and my dearest works 2-10. So I’m the one who does the evening routines by myself 90% of the time. My husband REFUSES to give our kids a bath (3 and 1) he’s afraid the “baby will drown” (that’s been the excuse from day one of being a father) and I’ve come to the conclusion he never will give them a bath. I ask him a wee bit of help – garbage, dishes, bottles, dinner, laundry… Well you get the jist.. Any of that and he tells me
    Hold on. Or I will do it during a commercial. NEVER DOES IT! So of course by the time 5 days go by of doing it all myself I would enjoy some help so maybe I can relax? And I may or may not be the nicest person when I ask the second or third time. And then I just end up being a lunatic and we end up arguing.
    My question is… Hoe do I get him to help without having to flip out and end up mad the rest of the night?!? Anyone .. Anything.. I’m willing to try it!!

    1. Brittany- we can totally empathize with the situation you described! With busy schedules, it is incredibly easy to get stuck in a cycle of arguing. From my experience, I’ve found it helpful to pick a time when I’m not upset to talk to my hubby about something that’s bothering me. Just like you mentioned, in the heat of the moment, I think we all have a natural tendency to overreact. Can you set aside some time on the weekend (maybe really early in the morning or late at night when the kids are sleeping) to talk? As hard as it might be to not start your conversation off with, “I’m really upset you never help out around the house or with the kids, etc…” — can you frame the discussion around meeting your needs? Phrases like, “I could really use your help with XYZ. Right now, I’m feeling overwhelmed trying to juggle everything. With life as crazy as it is right now, I love when we work as a team to get everything accomplished.”

      During this conversation, you could try brainstorming together a list of all the chores, etc… that need to get done throughout the week. Ask your spouse what items he feels he could realistically take on. Sometimes having a concrete visual is a great cue for being able to split up household tasks. Julie had a great post on turning your to-do list into a fun game/competition with your spouse. ( I love how this suggestion transformed those mundane and often annoying chores into a fun, shared activity.

      When your spouse does a particular chore, definitely praise him (even if you might be thinking to yourself “well, it’s about time!”… haha!) Your positive attention will hopefully be a powerful positive motivator for the future.

      Finding a time for both you and your spouse to relax and decompress during the week is definitely a necessity! Perhaps you could frame that conversation with your spouse in terms of, “You work so hard during the week, when can we set aside some uninterrupted time for you to catch up on your favorite TV show/football games?” Then, ask him when he might be able to do the same for you.

      Definitely, keep us posted! We realize what works for one couple might not work for another. And, it is always easier to talk about something in hindsight than applying in it in the moment!

      I also wanted to mention that we have a tele-seminar on Wednesday (9/26/12) featuring Shannon and Dino Watt where they will be talking about communication transformation. It sounds like this call would be an awesome opportunity to pick up some extra tips on the sticky subject of communication from 2 experts. You can find out more information about this free event at