Argue With, Not About, Emotion

Most couples will initially present relationship difficulty as “a communication problem.” Many workplace conflicts will be “resolved” by a commitment to better communication. Stacks of volumes have been written about communication in all sorts of relationships and settings. In this little postlet, I want to highlight the role of emotions in contentious discourse. Reversing course, let’s start with the solution.


Doctor Patient Partnership – Regina Holliday

  • Do not justify how you feel or that you have some right to feel the way you do. Your emotions are not debatable. They are your truth. They may spring from cognitively shaky ground; they may arise from outright delusions. Yet emotions are happening and they are part of, and sometimes most of what we simply call “experience.” Just report on them. Voice them. Wave your arms or shake your fists about them. Definitely make faces. Most importantly, own them. They are yours, only yours. Try to let go of the idea that something or someone “made you feel” this way, like you have no freedom. That you feel, however, is a simple fact and if somebody wants to understand your experience, s/he will accept this fact and look further. You cannot persuade a person of the nose on your own face. Do not try. It needs no justification.
  • Do not try to undermine someone’s emotion. Do not attempt to demonstrate or argue that s/he “should not” feel a particular way, that s/he has “no basis or right” to express this or that emotion, or how “nobody would” have such feelings. See the first point. Feelings are not right or wrong, just or unjust, deserved or undeserved. They do not exceed or fall short of some mythical standard of appropriateness. They are neutral information. You can either use the information or discard it. What part of his/her memory, which internal script, which cognitive construct leads to this emotion? What is its precise flavour (what are the lesser affects mixed in)? What was the trigger? To begin to answer these questions is called empathy and the sharp point of an emotion is a sign leading you in the right direction. The volume and intensity of the emotion is proportional to the visibility and urgency of the sign (from the smallest fine print to the largest neon billboard). Do not argue about the sign.

“Heated” arguments are fueled by emotion and become self-perpetuating and never-ending when the content becomes the emotions themselves. We assume that the negative emotions of others are direct messages to us conveying that we are doing or have done something wrong. Their emotions are heard as our put-downs. (Technically, this is shaming and therefore most verbal/emotional fights are shame battles.) Probably this interpretation is the strongest and hardest to counter in couples’ conflicts, because the stakes are higher than in all other relationships. To counter this offense, I attack what I see as the source, the other’s emotion. Your feeling is wrong! How dare you!! (express that offensive feeling with no justification). Your “behaviour” is totally unwarranted. I have just invalidated the other person’s experience. S/he will definitely not like that (also highly shaming). When I say “attack,” I of course mean with anger. Then the process reverses and we are in an infinite loop.

Arguments about emotions are false from the premise and so there is no winning. Each thinks they can win by a better justification of their feelings and a more effective undermining of the other’s feelings. Such a communication strategy only inflicts a mutual emotional beating.

The effective response to someone’s emotion is empathy. The better response is compassion. The best response is mercy.

12 Step Recovery: In Giving That We Receive

  1. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

In the early years of what would become the 12 Step program, the originators worked one-on-one with suffering addicts, trying to help them gain sobriety. Their efforts largely failed – in terms of those receiving help. The people giving the help, however, soon realized that their efforts were instrumental in keeping them sober.


The Conversation – Edgar Degas, 1895

You keep sobriety by giving it away, a paradox that all-or-nothing thinking can never countenance. You are only ready to see the wisdom in the 12th Step once you have gone through all of the other steps, including the contemplative mindset of the the 11th Step. By this point you realize that you are not in control and that recovery is happening in you and through you by a Power not your own. This “spiritual awakening” is what moves you to let it happen.

An important and parallel psychological process is also at work. By carrying the message, you gather and process all of your recovery experiences in the left brain. Early on, neither addiction nor recovery make much sense. You are consumed by the experience itself, like “breathing underwater.” To completely internalize and own an experience, you have to understand it at some level using reason and language. Words symbolize and organize, creating insight. The resulting message reinforces the integration and the integration strengthens the message. Old-timers in recovery have a deep wisdom.

This anchoring of experience is not just conceptual, but also practical. We further try “to practice these principles in all of our affairs,” a broadening of the 8th, 9th and 10th steps.

Communicating and practicing with “these principles” indicates not only recovery, but also transformation. I would say that a person who is sober in emotion and behavior is transformed beyond typical consciousness, which is why these folks make such valuable and wonderful friends.

Marriage Quarrels: The Issue Is Never The Issue

The biggest communication problem between couples is not a matter of technique or style. It is the subject matter. Attachment partners will argue about the most trivial of conflicts and criticize each other on the most innocuous of behaviors. They will do so aggressively in a range from blazing anger to eye rolls, or passively through disregard and non-cooperation. They attack and defend or counter-attack. Across a history of surface issues, patterns are found – “You never …” – more persuasive arguments.

the debate - 1920

Man and Woman Seated Back to Back, Norman Rockwell, 1920

Where is justice to be found? Who is right and who has been wronged? It does not matter. No, not one bit. The apparent issue is not The Real Issue. The much argued subject is merely the stage for crying over old bruises and creating new ones. You can spend hours and lots of money with a marriage counselor adjudicating each bruise.

Trivial conflicts and innocuous behaviors cannot create the kind of energy that is required for years of these superficial dramas. Pain energy of this magnitude comes from The Real Issue, which is not getting your attachment needs met (and not being able to meet the same needs of your partner). To simplify, consider affirmation, encouragement and consolation as three primary attachment needs. You only demand them from your attachment figure. The first such figure was your primary caregiver. Part of the excitement and limerance of marriage comes from the promise of securing a new and permanent attachment figure.

When the adult attachment figure does not deliver the goods you are disappointed and disillusioned at best,  crushed and desperate at worst. You hold that pain and it festers. Some momentary relief comes through anger (or numbing, denial, affairs, etc., etc.) and any little irritant can get the emotional pain energy flowing. A new quarrel begins.

How Can We Get Out of This Cycle?

If you could quarrel about The Real Issue, that would be a lot of progress. At least your energy would not be complete wasted. Better would be not to quarrel at all and see the tragedy of your deeper wounds and those of your partner through the eyes of your heart. It sucks not to have your attachment needs met. Too often they were not met in childhood either and that is an even bigger tragedy. How was this flawed person before you trained to affirm, encourage and console? Is that his/her fault?