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What do you argue about?

Have you noticed that when you have arguments with the people close to you- your ‘nearest’ as they say in French- they are usually the same argument in a million different guises?

For example, on Friday, I was in a terrible mood. The day started well, I was up early, I’ve actually got my act together and started doing yoga in the morning so by the time I was at my desk ready to work I felt stretched and ready. By the time Andy came downstairs to join me however, I was furious. I glowered at him and growled at him. Already a first lesson for you- force yourself to be pleasant to your work colleagues/partner even if you feel ready to pour coffee over your keyboard. Saying a cheerful sounding hello either changes the course of your mood or buys you some quiet time to let your fury pass.

Give me lemonade and I'll make lemons

Geneen Roth

Why was I so grumpy? Great question. Looking back on it now, I can see- without the fog of physical sensation- that it was a combination of frustration that I hadn’t achieved more that week and fear that I can’t finish the project that I’ve just started. Topped with PMS…often those infuriatingly sneaky monthly hormones are enough to nudge my emotions over the precipice into full blown anger, and I never remember that they have that effect. Not even apps have solved that psychological quirk.

Once I’d snarled a complaint about online banking instead of a happy greeting, the day was almost inevitably headed towards argument. I can see his perspective…now. He was facing a day alongside a very negative me and I am a pro at being negative, as writer Geneen Roth says, ‘Give me lemonade and I’ll make lemons.’ I’ve been thinking a lot about anger recently, trying to better understand the purpose of it and what other problems actually lie behind it.

I knew enough that morning to take some deep breaths, distract myself from what was irritating me and try to regain some detachment. By the afternoon, unfortunately, my sense that I wasn’t getting enough done had returned with a vengeance and I was even more riled up. In How to Build a Girl, Caitlin Moran explains anger as ‘just fear, brought to the boil’ and I was roiling with overheated fear, looking for someone to burn.

The argument came when Andy wanted to change our dinner plans. He wanted to eat early and go out for a drink with some friends. I should have asked questions- ‘Are you hungry now?’, ‘ Do you think we’ll be too hungry later?’, ‘Can we meet them a little later so we don’t have to rush to eat?’. I snapped ‘Why would we eat now?! We should eat later.’ Lesson number two: when you’re already feeling angry beware of changing plans, this will make you feel even more out of control. If anyone suggests changing your plans or disrupts your day, my best suggestion is ‘I’m not sure, let me think for a minute.’ You’re buying yourself time again to see past your anger.

Last Friday however, I ignored my own advice. Within a few sentences we were in a full blown argument… including 3 of what psychologist John Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse– criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling. I made his suggestion all about him being self-centered- not thinking about what I would prefer (criticism), he said he didn’t want to talk about it when I was in such a bad mood (stonewalling), I said why did he have to blame me, I didn’t want to be in a bad mood, why make it so difficult for me (defensiveness).

Finally, in what I have now come to recognise as the DEFCON 1 stage of our arguments (which are generally very rare) we came back to one of our key relationship ‘stories’- he is sociable and I am not. The reason this is a recurring theme in our relationship is, of course, because it contains a kernel of truth. Andy tends to the extroverted and I tend to the introverted. To avoid this difference between us becoming an irreconcilable issue, a true harbinger of the apocalypse, we have to meet in the middle. So far we always have.

My question is why do we keep replaying the same fears and arguments?

We do this in a variety of ways. This time we busied ourselves in different rooms until we had both calmed down. I offered a compromise and thankfully Andy graciously accepted. That’s another one of the ways we get ourselves out of our arguments. One of us offers a peace offering and we set our defensiveness and pride and frustration aside so that we could get the hell out of the dumbass net we’d tangled ourselves into.

We have several of these areas of friction, these malevolent ‘stories’ that cause of us to argue- I fear that Andy thinks I’m not smart enough to hold his interest, he worries that accomplish what he wants to accomplish. Our very greatest fears are where we get stuck when we argue. The terrifying dullness of my shyness is projected onto Andy when we disagree and I predict the only ending that seems logical to me- we don’t work together.

My question is why do we keep replaying the same fears and arguments? Do you do this as well?

Am I not convinced by now that Andy knows and understands me? Why don’t I trust him? I can only assume that it’s because I keep telling him conflicting stories-I am fine with my introversion…and yet, he hears my own doubt. I’m asking him to believe what I can’t seem to- I’ve fallen into the story I’ve created for myself like Alice and Wonderland.

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