Five kinds of arguments that get us nowhere

April 18, 2014

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There are five patterns of arguing are both particularly common and particularly problematic. Invariably, they end badly.

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This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.

Communication is pretty complicated. But it should be simple. There are really only three basic elements to it; a sender, a receiver and a message. There's the encoder of the message, the message itself and then the decoder of the message. That's it. But of course, things become much more complicated when you consider how we can send those messages. In this two part series we're going to talk about how we communicate in relationships.

In the first part of the series, we explored four common problems men and women have when talking to each other and why. In this article, we'll explore five of the most common arguments we have in relationships and why they invariably end badly.

In 1979, influential couples psychologist John Gottman taped a bunch of couples in the lab and at their homes. He studied the tapes for verbal 'mismanagement'. Here's what he found.

Cross-complaining

In Gottman's tapes, there were a large number of interactions you might find familiar from the schoolyard: 'You did this!' 'Yeah? Well you did that!'. He noticed that this sort of argument tended to go on and on, without resolution. Moreover, this kind of argument is exactly that which can become a routine and cause a number of relational problems down the track. The difficulty with this becoming a routine is that this becomes an expectation of the relationship. When this expectation is violated, it results in a much stronger emotion than if it had just continued like normal. Violate the expectation in a good way and it might turn into something great. Violate it in a bad way and things will get much, much worse.

Mind-reading

Arguments caused by 'mind reading' are those that occur when we think we know what our partners meant despite what they say. The idea that 'I don't care what you said, I know you actually meant something else'. Unfortunately this kind of argument can be very destructive because no matter what the partner does, they can't fix it because the other partner 'knows what they really mean' (whether they do or don't) and won't listen.

Kitchen-sinking

Kitchen-sinking is where one party (at least) throws in everything that ever annoyed them into the one argument. 'You do this! And you know what, you also do this, this, this, this and this. And this!'. This kind of argument is completely useless (except to make one person feel slightly better) because it leaves no opportunity for the other person to address the issue. It simply overwhelms them and builds up a bunch of negative, painful emotions. And sometimes, people will throw something in there that they don't really mean or regret saying.

Self-summarizing

Self-summarizing is a peculiar one. Similar to the 'mind-reading', this argument happens when one partner is ignoring what the other person is saying. Basically, they sum up what the problem is, but have it in their head that their partner won't understand them. So, the partner responds, maybe correctly or maybe not, but the other partner doesn't hear it and summarises the problem again. Obviously, just like in 'mind-reading', if you aren't listening to your partner, you can't fix the problem.

And finally, something that isn't always an 'argument' per se, but rather a misguided attempt at fixing the problem that often goes wrong:

Metacommunication

This is probably the most amusing and potentially the most depressing. It is an example of what happens when shoddy therapists and uninformed people get a hold of a psychological principle. This comes from the 'validation' principles of the 1960s and 70s. Therapists would tell people 'when you're arguing, make sure you acknowledge what the other person is feeling and communicate clearly why you're upset too'. So people would go away and say 'I hear you say you're unhappy becauseā€¦ and I'm unhappy becauseā€¦, you own your feelings and I'll own mine'. In theory of course, this should work, but people tended to distance themselves from the problem at hand--acknowledging their partner was upset but doing nothing to fix it. Psychology gone wrong.

I'd be surprised if you didn't identify at least one of these things in your past arguments. Whether with your partner or one of your mates, it's bound to have happened. The key is to recognise and avoid them. These are arguments that never end.

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