Have you ever been told that your child is amazing, polite, and well-behaved by others when all they do is fight or argue with you at home?
Or perhaps your spouse comes home from a job where everyone loves them but then they are totally critical or moody at home, igniting little or big arguments on a regular basis?
Or maybe you even recognize this in yourself. You are so pleasant to everyone else, but when you get home – for reasons even you can’t understand – you are not nice to those you love.
What’s going on?
Not only is arguing a lot with the ones we love exhausting, but it is frustrating and can give us the illusion that something is ‘wrong’ with us and that we are doing a bad job as a parent, spouse, sibling, or child.
The truth is that our relationships with those we are closest to are different from the relationships we have with colleagues and friends on the outside… more different than we often realize. Understanding the differences can help us be more compassionate with ourselves and others and even take a more productive approach to improving our most precious relationships.
Reason we argue #1
We expect the relationships we have at home to be the same as the relationships we have with others, and they aren’t.
One of my favorite wisdoms is that suffering and frustration stems from the gap between expectation and reality. The reality is that while our relationships at home are fundamentally different from the relationships we have with others, we unconsciously assume they are the same. We get disappointed when we expect them to operate the same way (expectation) and they don’t (reality).
Relationships with people we meet and get to know outside the home are more novel because we don’t spend so much time with them. The period of intrigue when everyone tries to be at their best lasts longer. We pay more attention to these relationships, we are more present in them, and we engage with more curiosity.. In return, others are more present, attentive and curious about us… and that feels good! We like it when people are interested in us, pay us compliments, and enjoy being with us. This is the norm in new and newer relationships outside the home.
Additionally, even if we are frustrated with people at work, school, or in a community setting, we intuitively anticipate that the consequences of reacting harshly to things that upset us would be great. We censor ourselves and do not express what we feel. However, in holding back, we also hold it in. When we do so, the frustration or upset comes out eventually, and who is most likely to get the brunt of that??? Yes… those we feel safest with… those we expect to love us no matter what.
Reason we argue #2
We spend so much time with the ones we love that we mistakenly believe we know everything about them.
Imagine two puzzles… a 10 piece puzzle and an unheard of 3000 piece puzzle. Even if you LOVE to do puzzles, which puzzle is going to be harder to complete? Unless you are 8 months old, most of us will barely have to think about completing the 10 piece puzzle, and after we have done it once or twice, we would be able to put it together in a matter of seconds. Alternatively, no matter how good you are at puzzles, the 3000 piece puzzle is going to be a huge challenge. And even if you wanted to complete it multiple times, you will still not get to the place where you could complete it in a matter of minutes. It is just too complex a task.
What does this have to do with arguing?
Many of us have the illusion that because we live with someone day in and day out that we know them like the 10 piece puzzle. We think we know exactly what they will do, why they do it, what they feel, etc… We stop investing the same kind of energy into the relationship. We assume we have them all figured out and we don’t engage with the same presence, attentiveness, and curiosity that we afford our friends or colleagues. We assume ‘we know’ and that assumption causes conflict because the people we care about most don’t feel seen, heard, or cared for well.
The truth is that no matter how well we think we know someone, it is impossible for us to know them like the 10 piece puzzle. The human mind, body, and emotional systems are so incredibly complex that we will never be able to master understanding ourselves, let alone someone else. How many times have you thought to yourself, “I don’t know what’s going on with me?” Well if you don’t always know what is going on with yourself, how could you possibly always know what is going on with someone else?
Reason we argue #3
Our closest relationships matter more.
Sometimes we forgive others for unconscious comments or behavior much more easily than we forgive those we care about the most. Have you ever had the experience where someone might be a bit unconscious and say something that doesn’t really sit well with you and you just let it go? You say to yourself, ‘That’s just how they are.’ And it really doesn’t feel like a big deal. But then one of your closest friends or family members says something and you can’t let it go. It bothers you. This happens because we are much more invested in these relationships and our expectations are higher. We care what our closest friends and family members say and think about us so we are much more sensitive when what they say feels hurtful or dismissive.
Arguing is a natural part of life. We argue because we have different perspectives on things and feel committed to our position. We argue because we feel as though we have been wronged or hurt and believe the other person should have known better. We argue because we feel ignored, dismissed or disrespected by someone who we thought cared about us. And we argue because we all carry wounds from the past that get activated most by the people we care most deeply about. But all arguments are an opportunity to deepen our connection with another person if we learn how to argue well. This is what we will be discussing on this week’s podcast: Courage to be Curious with Adina Tovell. Tune in to learn what we believe it takes to argue productively.