As a marital and family therapist, I sometimes consider it my job to help people to have a good old-fashioned argument. It’s no easy matter, as there seems to be a real knack to getting it right.
Not all families argue but it can be a helpful way of maintaining closeness. It helps people to regulate negative emotions and allows opportunities for family members to feel heard and accepted.
If you grew up in a family where the smallest thing could result in a full blown fight or if you rarely saw anyone in your family get angry, then this article might be for you.
It will look at common and unhelpful conflict styles and will suggest ways in which we can win arguments without letting our relationships lose out.
Volcanoes, Gas Tanks, Tortoises and Hedgehogs.
Every one uses different styles of dealing with anger. I have divided these different styles into categories.
A volcano stores up anger, resentment and bitterness until it all get’s too much to control and the volcano has to blow. This can be pretty explosive leaving both the volcano and other members of the family stunned and hurt.
Volcanoes learned a long time ago that the best way to deal with a problem was to keep perfectly calm. This approach can be highly successful at work and in many situations at home.
However the mounting tension can be exhausting. Family members may also be unaware that anger is building up leaving the volcano feeling misunderstood and frustrated and adding further to their anger.
Gas Tanks tend to carry a lot of volatile material around with them and can explode with the slightest spark. They can be very sensitive to having their feelings, hurt or ignored and have found in the past, that the only way to address hurt, fear or sadness is by losing their temper.
If you live with a gas tank, you may find yourself feeling anxious not to hurt or offend in any way. You may also find yourself treading on eggshells a lot of the time.
Hedgehogs are good at not exposing any part of themselves that feels vulnerable. They have learned as children that expressing their feelings can be dangerous and can lead to rejection or abandonment.
The trouble is that hedgehogs can be extremely prickly to the touch. If you live with a hedgehog, you may be used to getting your feelings hurt. It is unintentional but can be experienced as sarcasm, the cold shoulder, insensitivity, or humiliation.
Tortoises plod away and take everything in their stride. They have a tough outer shell and seem to be immune to feelings.
If you live with a tortoise you may feel lonely and ignored. You may feel misunderstood and wonder if they really care. Paradoxically their outer shell is there to protect them from caring too much.
A vicious circle can develop where family members take pot shots at the tortoise in order to make them react. However this can only make them retreat further into their shell.
Of course this is an over simplification. In fact there are crossovers between the styles and we often find ourselves adopting more then one in family arguments.
The trouble is that each style feeds off the other. They are self perpetuating, leaving family members caught in escalating conflict or bitter withdrawal.
How not to be a volcano, gas tank, hedgehog or tortoise.
We have all caught ourselves, or someone we love using these argument styles. However it takes a great deal of tolerance in a relationship to endure this for long.
John Gottman has done a thorough study of happy couples and has noted that happiness in relationships is not found through avoidance of arguments but in the adherence to certain unwritten rules.
It’s not whether you argue but how. With this in mind, I have extrapolated some ground rules for family conflict.
Many people think that in order to win an argument, someone else has to lose. In fact the win/lose approach often results in both sides losing. Arguments can become entrenched, leaving people feeling exhausted and hopeless about finding a solution.
Instead of being on separate sides, therefore, try to imagine that you are looking for a way back on to the same side. If you allow your loved won to win you over with their argument, it is very likely that they will do the same for you.
Lids with safety valves.
Gas explosions are never helpful in arguments so try and put a lid on it. If you feel like a volcano and can sense the pressure building up then release it gently and effectively using assertiveness and empathy. If you are about to blow then use time out.
Be assertive. There is no need for profanity, insults or abusive tactics. Try not to make the argument about the other person or point the finger of blame. Focus on what happened, how you feel and why this is so important to you.
Arguing without empathy is a bit like shaving with no sense of touch. Without empathy, how do you know how sharp your words are and how hurt your loved one feels? Arguments can escalate so easily without this essential ingredient.
Take time out
If you become too agitated then take time out. Acute stress makes it hard for us to think clearly. So if your temperature goes up, or you hear the blood pounding in your ears, take a break.
Notice if you are hungry, or tired. This can greatly affect your ability to keep a lid on things. You may find it helpful to eat something or have a sleep. Writing your thoughts down in a letter may help you to calm down.