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The Anatomy of An Argument

Fighting More Effectively in Your Relationship

As a woman, the only time I’ve ever heard a man say to me, “We need to talk about this,” has been when I had a male boss asking me to come into his office for some pow-wow time over an activity I did right or wrong.  From my personal backstory, I have a tendency to assume that my boss wanted to point out something I did wrong. Never did I believe for a moment that he wished to unload his  fears or share his concerns about the stress of his role or his emotional mindset. “No news is good news” was applied truth, and I became familiar with the world of wishing to hear nothing at all versus cringing over the fear of being reprimanded or embarrassed over my mistakes.

On the other side of that equation, I believe men have heard this statement quite frequently from their partners, and their feelings of shame are magnified times a hundred in comparison to mine. I feel for the man hanging an imaginary tail between his legs as he slinks towards his wife (or his husband) and hears what he perceives to be a long list of his shortcomings, failures, and mistakes. What’s worse is that after that scenario ends, the partner who has just unloaded his or her feelings often says, “I feel better, now that we’ve talked!” while the receiving partner feels like his head and heart just got treated like a garbage disposal. How do you avoid such a situation? My suggestion involves two steps: understand the anatomy of an argument before it blows up, and move the tension towards connecting.

In this blogpost, I’m focusing on the first half: understanding the anatomy of an argument. In the next blogpost, I’ll show you a few effective ways to move your understanding into connecting dialogue when the time is right. Before I get into the anatomy of an argument, let me introduce a rather revolutionary thought.

Stop Talking

Well, wait a minute! Isn’t the key to a good relationship communication skills? When your partner is angry with you, aren’t you suppose to talk about it until s/he feels better?

I would guestimate nine out of ten couples who have come to me for help with their relationships state that they would like to learn “good communications skills”, and that the majority of them feel that this is an identifiable set of skills that if employed would lead to a more harmonious relationship. They also typically believe that they should not allow themselves to go to bed without resolving the issues involved in a nasty fight. I have even heard of some couples staying up to the wee hours of the morning, arguing and fighting their way through their problems. The result: both are exhausted, and many times they are still hurt and angry. In my mind, this is not a win.

While there exist communication skills that anyone can read, practice, and use on a regular basis to improve how a message is received and transmitted,  good communication skills in and of themselves often do not solve the problem of conflict and frequent fighting people commonly experience.

No one ever suspects that part of good communication might involve not talking about the problem the way they have been taught: to discuss it until every issue is covered, to not go to bed without completing whatever argument got started, to say clever things with a certain amount of logic, or to acquiesce to one’s angry partner by saying, “Yes, honey, you’re right!” in order to end the conflict. In fact, a part of good communication involves knowing when to stop talking.

According to authors Patricia Love and Steven Stosny of the book, “How To Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It”, women tend to want to talk about their feelings at the moment something is happening. When they discuss problems with their female friends, they usually experience those friends drawing closer to her in understanding and connection. But when she tries to do the same thing with her partner, whether male or female, oftentimes she will not experience the same thing. Why is that?

One reason is that in heterosexual relationships, men do not draw closer when they encounter a woman’s complaints, frustration, and needs. Instead, many men turn to the lightning-quick elements of their backstory, which often equates complaints and needs with feelings of failure:


She thinks I’m a loser because I didn’t do [X, Y, or Z]!”

or      “She never sees how hard I’ve been working to please her. I’m never enough!”        

Note: in gay relationships, one should adjust for gender roles and typical backstories to understand how each partner responds to conflict.

Why would you want to stop talking? Because according to the anatomy of most fights, talking about the argument in that moment is an inefficient, ineffective, and highly risky action when tensions are high and emotions are flying. When both partners are experiencing heightened sensitivity, the chances of experiencing a physiological “fight or flight” response are also high. Translation: you are more likely to over respond to the situation in ways you may deeply regret after the argument blows over.

You don’t have to shut down to stop talking about the problem. There is a difference. What I’m advocating is not stonewalling or using the silent treatment as punishment. At the end of this blogpost, I’ll give a specific example of how you can stop the argument, stop talking about the problem, and move the energy of the tension towards a future moment of connecting.


The Anatomy of An Argument

A typical argument, like any other kind of discussion, has identifiable elements. If you understand how they flow, you have a better chance at diffusing them before they can cause harm to your relationship.

The Trigger – triggers come in all shapes and sizes. Stress from work, a child’s unmet needs, your partner’s quirks, a wisecrack, a slow commute after work, can all work to set your teeth on edge. Poorly understood triggers can set you up for a domino-effect mindset in search of way to relieve the tension brewing underneath your emotional surface. You are not the cause of your partner’s triggers, nor is your partner the cause of yours. You are responsible for and to you.

The Issue – this is a misconception. Most arguments are never about “the thing”, in fact, the subject of the argument, after analysis, is often a trigger or contributing factor to the real subject (the backstory) of the argument lodged just underneath the emotional surface.

The Words – in general, women tend to use more emotional words in their arguments, such as, “I feel exhausted just looking at the pile of dishes you left in the sink!” while men default to either using less words, or turning to logic and what I call “word parsing” (a search for literal meaning), such as, “Exactly how much time do I have to get to the dishes after dinner before you blow up about it?” Depending on early gender roles in the family of origin, you may have been taught to turn to problem solving or deep listening skills to talk your way through an argument. It’s perplexing if you find that this doesn’t work well.

Most of the time, if you are experiencing heightened emotional sensitivity, you won’t actually hear much of the words spoken. But you’ll “hear” the next element loud and clear!

The Tone and Body Language – if 60-80% of all communication is non-verbal, you can safely assume that a large chunk of any argument is messaged through non-verbal body language and vocal tones. Examples are: folded arms, eye rolling (resentment), slumped shoulders or a puffed up chest (anger), grimacing and micro expressions of anger, shrill vocal tones (typically women), vocal volume (both men and women, when feeling angry), tears.

Note: Men, if you want to ensure that your partner (male or female) doesn’t hear a word you are say, turn up the volume of your voice and depress your eyebrows. Women, if you want to watch your partner flee the room faster than a banshee, raise the shrillness of your voice (nag), fold your arms across your body, and sneer out of one side of your mouth.

The Backstory – behind every bad fight is a backstory. Often, the backstory IS the real argument, the “thing” you are truly fighting about. Quick discussions that reach the backstory are often easily resolvable and do not lead to further fighting. Fights that never unearth the backstory are often repeated over many years, causing partners deep fear, resentment, and/or avoidance. When you see your partner shut down, literally walk away, or  shout in anger, s/he is often experiencing elements of his or her backstory coming into play. This is easily observable when the argument trigger involves something rather trivial.

Backstory examples: shame, fear, resentment, previous failures, previous experiences of feeling trapped, hopeless, abandoned, lonely, left out, forgotten, punished, hated, abused, misunderstood.

The Resolution – every argument has a resolution, although not every resolution solves the original problem. You may have experienced arguments that ran over an hour and left your exhausted, “but at least we talked it through!” Other times, someone walked away and you decided it was best to avoid bringing it up again. Still others try “make up sex”, effectively trying to smooth over angry feelings in a big wash of body chemistry through orgasmic pleasure. While the hope of resolving an argument is to move the relationship energy back to place of peace and harmonious connection, many arguments fall short of achieving this hopeful goal.

Putting all that together:

Trigger + Issue + Words + Tone/Body Language + Backstory + Resolution = SOLVED!

Right? Wrong! Many times, all you feel after an argument is frustration! Is that necessary? Do we always have to go through all this arguing to get to a resolution? Thankfully, the answer is no.


Move The Energy Towards Connecting

There you are, facing the frustration of your partner and on the brink of an argument. There are two things you can do for yourself and your partner that may diffuse the argument from turning into a relational disaster

First, soothe yourself. What do I mean by soothe? Take care of your needs first. Like they say on airplane flights before take off, if the cabin loses air pressure, place the oxygen mask on yourself and then assist the person next to you. You will be in better control of your responses if you take care of your physical needs first. You can also encourage your partner to take care of his or her needs as well.

Did you just walk in the door from a long after-work commute? Wash up, change out of your work clothes, get a drink of water, eat a meal or snack (to prevent getting hangry, which is anger sparked by hunger!). If you like post-work exercise, arrange to stop at the gym and work out. Are you exhausted? Take a 15 min nap before dinner. Something hanging over your head from work? Ask your partner if you can have a few minutes undisturbed at the computer to take care of it in order to later turn your full attention to being “all there” with your partner.

Next, watch for signs of dumping. If either you or your partner start to foist emotional material at each other, head off nasty arguments at the pass. Instead of returning to the pattern of hashing out and arguing every little detail, ask a few questions:

1. Does this need to be talked about right now? (Is it an emergency or crisis? Is anyone bleeding, needing a hospital, is the house going to burn down, is the world exploding?) If not, defer to another time that both of you can agree to calmly talking about said issue.

2. Address the attempts at emotional “dumping” with soft tones, open body language, and “light” emotional language. Example: “Wow honey, I can hear how upset you are [*insert hand gently brushing partner’s arm or shoulder, soft eye contact*]. Can we find a better time to talk about this, perhaps after you’ve had a [hot bath, some chill time, sleep, food, etc]?”

If your partner tries to barrel through his or her feelings by demanding that the fight

must take place right now, try a slightly stronger message to convey how you do not want to host a fight at that moment. Example: “I can see you are upset, and I don’t want to fight with you right now. I’d prefer to talk about this [tomorrow, on the weekend] when we’ve both had some time to sleep on it. Do you really want to do this right now, when I think we can talk about this later? I promise to listen and discuss this with you.”

If the moment can bear it, a light hug after agreeing to stop arguing can give both of you enough connection to wait until the tension has deescalated. Some people experience the pleasant realization that what might have been a full-blown argument was completely avoided by resisting the urge to talk about the problem in the heat of such sensitive emotions and tensions.

Note: never use the withholding of sex as a punishment. More on this topic in a future blogpost!

By understanding the anatomy of an argument and choosing to deescalate tensions instead of fighting into the night, you can move your relationship in the direction of a stronger connection. In my next blogpost, I’ll describe ways you can work on developing that connection.

Reading about ways to improve your relationship never actually improves the relationship. You have to try it out for yourself! Of course, a blogpost only summarizes general information. Your relationship may have specific challenges that can’t be fully addressed in self-help articles. Sometimes it’s necessary to have an impartial person such as a therapist help each of you go through the elements of your relationship style to decrease the number of fights and harm they inflict, and turn the direction of your fighting into connecting and restoring your relationship. At Seattle Direct Counseling, we’re here to help!


By Imei Hsu

Imei Hsu is a mental health counselor, active retired RN, AIP Coach and PN1-NC, writer, triathlete and arts promoter in the Seattle area and through online services. With 30+ years in healthcare (22+ years in mental health), Imei has a commitment to helping people discover insight into their health, relationships, and connecting. She is the owner of Seattle Direct Counseling and the blog, a presenter and speaker on a variety of psychological topics, and a positive force on the Internet. She launched her personal project, My Allergy Advocate, in 2018. Imei is a two-time Ironman Finisher (Mont-Tremblant 2016, Ironman Canada 2018); she also finished her first ultramarathon in 2017 and has gone on to race the 100K distance while preparing for 100 Mile trail races and a backyard ultra. You can find her running everywhere and eating all the thingz, watching movies, camping under the stars, and cooking real food.

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