Arguing with women!
June 9, 2010 9:35 AM   Subscribe

Arguing with women! a step-by-step guide?

I'm a mid-twenties male. My parents divorced when I was young. My dad never really dated, and my mom got into unhealthy relationships, so my overall relationship modeling has been poor. I'm old enough now, though, that I need to take responsibility for who I am.

Overall, how should I change my mindsets and actions? What is my role in disputes in relationships? Details below.

CATEGORY I - starting with a question

"have you taken out the trash?" "what time is the movie?"

At first, I don't take it seriously because it seems like an easily-solved problem has been raised. Eventually it becomes clear that the argument is not actually about what was originally brought up, but 5 other little things ("your shoes are in the wrong place") and one big thing ("when are we getting married?"). Obviously marriage is the last thing on my mind in these instances.

This is a twice-weekly event with my girlfriend.

Quickly, my confusion becomes angry bewilderment. I get upset not at the topic of argument but at the fact that we're having an argument and I have no idea how to fix it. She's angry and I'm trying to solve problems and it's not working so I become angry at the idea that I can't fix anything.

It usually climaxes in me saying, "That's not how I saw it. I did X with intention A, you reacted with Y which I interpreted as being B, so I did Z and now we're arguing and I feel like shit."

What can I do when I become bewildered? How can I figure out early on what the issue really is? Is there a way I can redirect this pattern into a discussion with pen and paper?

CATEGORY II - talked down to

I HATE being talked down to. Little makes me angry or resentful, but being talked to as though I'm a child will work every time.

For me this means being given a command as opposed to a request OR being given advice I didn't ask for. I ask for advice when I realize I can't figure things out by myself.

It should be logically obvious that the other person is not usually trying to make me feel like a child, but it isn't. I think part of this comes from a fear that I am submitting, that I lose my power and freedom. I want to be a team, not a subordinate.

Where does this feeling/fear come from? How do I react appropriately?

CATEGORY III - understanding apologies

Sometimes my girlfriend says "I'm sorry" during an argument at a point where I'm apparently too angry to hear that. I respond, "I'm not looking for an apology, that's not what I want. I'm just trying to tell you what's going on."

What DO I want? Is it that apologies mean such different things to us?

CATEGORY IV - not showing emotions

I am constantly accused of not having emotions. I react to her obvious emotions with calm. To me, my job is to be the reassure-er, the comforter. My job is not to get upset. When I'm face with a problem, I separate myself from it. Nor do I use emotional words (like "angry" "hate" "lonely"). Instead I probably use grounded versions (like "frustrated" "not a fan of" "disappointed").

I've read that mirroring emotions and then slowly changing my tone to calm helps with this, but I'm not sure that's what you're supposed to do in a relationship.

How can I have her feel comfortable with the level of emotion I'm showing?

To clarify: I am not asking for advice on my relationship(s), but on the skill of relating, especially to women I'm close to (e.g. girlfriend). I don't think it's worth talking about the arguments play-by-play, because I'm trying to understand the pattern in my behavior.
posted by jander03 to Human Relations (51 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Have you seen these patterns with anyone but your current girlfriend?
posted by rachaelfaith at 9:41 AM on June 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

You relate to people as people. Personally, I don't like relating to people who group behavior you don't like as something that "women" do. It might help to treat these people as individuals with individual needs, and try addressing those needs directly.

Obviously, acting childish is not a gender-specific characteristic.
posted by brainmouse at 9:44 AM on June 9, 2010 [28 favorites]

Okay, first of all, this sounds like a relationship issue particular to you and your girlfriend rather than the way all women argue.

However, speaking for myself, when I do the angry-question thing, it's either because I've asked the person (a roommate or SO) to do said thing a million times before, or because it's a common sense thing, like taking out the trash when it's full or not leaving sneakers all over the living room floor. If you notice that your girlfriend is repeatedly asking you to do something that is either already your responsibility or that would help her out, you should come up with a way to remember to do that thing without her having to ask you. Keeping track of your own chores is annoying enough; don't make your girlfriend keep track of yours, too.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:46 AM on June 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

the oft-recommended book "How to Be an Adult in Relationships" has been very helpful. I haven't read the whole thing yet, but a lot of makes me go "oohhhh, i see now."

having come from a family where i did not have good emotional role models (you were either happy or angry, no crying or upsetness allowed, no being lonely or sad or feeling unloved and you just need a hug), the book has been very eye opening.

if you're not in counseling, you might want to check it out for a few sessions. sometimes it's help to have an 3rd party to discuss things with. if you didn't grow up around people who had somewhat healthy relationships and who expressed emotions in healthy ways, then it can be confusing.

my boyfriend's family is fairly normal so it's been a real struggle for us since i'm programmed to react in certain ways to things (eg, when he reacts like X, then it really means Z since that's what X always meant. but actually when he reacts like's he's hurt/sad/thinks something's funny/etc, he really means he's hurt/sad/thinks something's funny).

it might be helpful for you both to go to some sessions, not necessarily has "therapy" but as to learn some better communication skills. my BF was hesitant at first but our communication has improved greatly in that we may say the same stuff, but now we UNDERSTAND what we are saying.
posted by sio42 at 9:48 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Can't give advice with you on the relationship stuff. Other than to ask if you guys have tried talking about how you communicate at some point when you aren't already upset?

But this:

For me this means being given a command as opposed to a request OR being given advice I didn't ask for. I ask for advice when I realize I can't figure things out by myself.

It should be logically obvious that the other person is not usually trying to make me feel like a child, but it isn't. I think part of this comes from a fear that I am submitting, that I lose my power and freedom. I want to be a team, not a subordinate.

Sounds familiar. I find when my id's yelling "You can't tell me what to do," at someone in my head. If I actually yell this out loud in a mock upset voice. It shows me how ridiculous that fear/feeling/whatever is and makes me laugh which de-escalates the put-upon upsetness cycle. Inside our brains things get real big, if you expose them to the cold light of day it turns out they are so tiny as to be laughable.
posted by edbles at 9:49 AM on June 9, 2010 [7 favorites]

Agreeing with prior commenters that this may have to do more with individuals than with gender. I am female and I don't relate to the experience you describe. But one data point that may or may not be relevant WRT arguments related to household chores -- for cultural/social reasons, often the female half of a male-female couple will do much more of the housework than the male half. The male half sometimes will do chores when asked, or when asked several times. This creates a weird and bad/frustrating dynamic where the female person starts bugging the male person to do some household chore, which may link into a parent/mother-child/son situation ("talking down"). It may make sense to sit down and discuss expectations and how to fairly divide chores, as well as rules around the tasks (e.g. I will do X by time Y (with follow through -- do it), or I will do X by time Y, and you will not comment about the best way to do X, or whatever rules make sense to you).
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:53 AM on June 9, 2010 [12 favorites]

Saying "I'm sorry" has the exact impact you described in heated discussions. It isn't gender-specific, nor is it relationship-specific. It can cut off the discussion, making the offended person feel like the other party doesn't really care to discuss the topic further, or doesn't believe the offended person's point of view is valid. Saying "I apologize" can be better, but it should be followed up with why the person apologizes, showing an understanding for the situation. This works for office or professional situations, as well as with peers and family.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:53 AM on June 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm going to try and take these questions one-by-one, though I suspect this is really not something that metafilter will be able to fix for you (it's a little ranty):

What can I do when I become bewildered? How can I figure out early on what the issue really is? Is there a way I can redirect this pattern into a discussion with pen and paper?

When a minor issue seems to be escalating, you need to stop what you're doing, talk to her, be patient, and really listen. If she's blowing up over minor things, there's a good chance that either she's not communicating her emotions when it matters, or you're missing non-verbal cues that she's unhappy during other times. Be more attentive to her emotions, generally. When things seem to be going well together, ask her if she's happy, what she dreams about for the relationship, and what isn't working for her. Listen to her. Also, do try to pick up your shoes and such without having to be asked. No one likes to have to play mommy for a grown-up. I have no idea what you mean about the pen and paper thing.

Where does this feeling/fear come from? How do I react appropriately?

We are not your therapists, and have no way of knowing where this feeling comes from. If you know that you're not reacting appropriately, you need to remove yourself from the situation until you cool down. If this is an issue with your girlfriend, you might take her aside and discuss with her your feelings about it at a time when things are generally calm and okay (IE, not during the middle of a fight).

What DO I want? Is it that apologies mean such different things to us?

How should we know?! I can tell you, though, that if I were offering my husband a genuine apology and he insisted that he didn't want it, and didn't seem to hear it generally, I'd be hurt and upset. It's certainly not a gracious response.

How can I have her feel comfortable with the level of emotion I'm showing?

You can't control her feelings--you can only control your own actions. You might consider reading this book by Deborah Tannen to get a little bit of an idea for the kind of response she's really looking for.

It sounds to me like, generally, you're not doing a very good job of staying genuinely calm (even if you think you are, because if you're so angry that you don't notice someone apologize, or are plunged into a bleak rage when you think someone talks down to you, you're not calm), listening and observing her non-verbal cues, or empathizing. Couples therapy might be a good idea.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:54 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Following ClaudiaCenter's comment: agreeing upon chores and what "clean" and "put away" means can help a lot. In my relationship, I'm the lax one, so in the past I've said something is cleaned up or put away, when my wife disagrees. The issue is one of definitions, and once roles and thresholds are defined, there should be less confusion over what was said and what was implied.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:56 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

The goal is not to argue well, it's to avoid arguments. This is not to say you need to avoid disagreements or conflict -- you don't, and can't. Neither does it mean you need to avoid heated, emotional discussions -- again, you don't, and you can't. What it means is that you avoid pitting your anxieties and fears against her anxieties and fears. Nobody wins that game.

Instead, do everything you can to help her feel safe while she's working through whatever is bothering her. Ask her to do the same for you.

When you are bewildered, say "I care about you and I want to understand what you're trying to tell me, but I'm a little overwhelmed right now. Can we slow this down / sit quietly for a few minutes, try starting over? Can I have a hug?"

Try and understand that her "talking down to you" is probably her reaction to fear. She trying to control you because she's afraid of whatever is going on for her. It's not nice, but it's a defense mechanism and probably not something she's proud of. At the same time, you probably remember feeling terribly frustrated at being unable to please someone important when you were growing up (god knows I do). That's your issue. Talk about it with her when she's on safer ground and able to listen.

When people are really upset, they tend not to think or hear well. When you want to be understood, an apology will not help. What does help is taking turns when talking - you hear what she has to say, and demonstrate that you heard and understand it. Then switch roles and have her do the same for you. Don't spend hours doing it, either - take it EASY on each other.

Your job is not to withdraw and hide or deny emotions. That's a defense mechanism that eases your immediate anxieties at the expense of the relationship. Work on opening up. When you can't be open about your feelings, just take a break and watch a movie or something.
posted by jon1270 at 9:57 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

1. There is no way to argue with "women". We are all individual people. You need to work out how you can argue with your girlfriend, specifically.

2. Have you noticed what a similarity there is, between "She's angry and I'm trying to solve problems and it's not working so I become angry at the idea that I can't fix anything" and "I HATE being talked down to... For me this means ... being given advice I didn't ask for"??

3. How about both of you learn to spot when you are annoyed early on and ask for what you really want from the other person, in a calm tone of voice. "Please could you take out the trash". "Please could you get ready in plenty of time so we are not late for the movie". "Please could you let me try and work this out for myself for the moment" Etc etc.

4. If you are letting your girlfriend have all the responsibility for being "boss of housework", you need to get proactive and start doing your fair share without having to be asked.
posted by emilyw at 9:57 AM on June 9, 2010 [10 favorites]

I've had rare, but similar, arguments with other women in my life from time to time (my best friend, my mom, other girlfriends).

To answer to gender-generalizing, it might just be that my closest, most intimate relationships are with women so that's who I argue with. I think, too, that Deborah Tannen is onto something when she talks about differences in gender communication.
posted by jander03 at 10:00 AM on June 9, 2010

Wow, you sound just like my boyfriend. Are you by any chance an INTJ?

Okay let's start with CATEGORY I: I'm going to make an assumption here because I am not your girlfriend, but perhaps she's feeling judged/criticized by the tone of your questions. Underlying the trash, the movie tickets, do you

Here's the thing. The only person who can answer these questions and have a good conversation with you about these things is your girlfriend. Choose a time when you aren't angry, when all feathers are completely unruffled and calmly discuss all that you've mentioned here. But please acknowledge and void relying on your assumptions about what she is feeling and thinking. Your assumption in Category I is that the 'real' reason she's upset with you is because she wants to get married. Perhaps she's actually upset with you because she was feeling condescended to (which makes you feel the same way) and so now you've got a power struggle on your hands. Maybe she secretly really doesn't want to marry you and she's using these tactics to push you away. How can you know for sure?

Anyway, whatever I say is only going to be a guess. You want to know as much of her truth as possible and really the only way to learn how to have adult healthy conversations is to start having them. Preferably with your girlfriend. Good luck!
posted by ohyouknow at 10:01 AM on June 9, 2010

I am not asking for advice on my relationship(s), but on the skill of relating, especially to women I'm close to (e.g. girlfriend).

Strike that, reverse it. This sounds like an issue you're having with your girlfriend in particular. It does neither her nor you any good to operate under the assumption that all women think alike. (I think Deborah Tannen has some good advice, but I think it's more useful when you erase the genders and think of it as certain people behave like this, others behave like that.)

It sounds like you've mostly identified what makes arguments go awry, what you need to work on, and what you'd like her to work on. When you're both calm and have time to talk, have a talk with her about this. Make sure the talk doesn't sound like an accusation or an attempt to start an argument; you're looking to make things easier and happier for both of you and you're willing to hear input, so approach it from that perspective.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:03 AM on June 9, 2010

I came in to make the observation emilyw made in her second point. It seems to me you are both feeling not listened to when the other tries to fix or advise.
posted by QuakerMel at 10:05 AM on June 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Try not to take such a weight on your shoulders. Your girlfriend may come from a family (or previous relationship) where arguing is more of a day-to-day sort of interaction and not such a big deal.

I- assume any woman's question is actually a request or an order (eg.- "have you?"=I hope you already have, "would you like to"=I would like to, "do you think maybe you shouldn't=I think you shouldn't)

II- get used to it but it's fair to say "please, just talk to me like an adult" and resume a team-like attitude

III- it's easy for forget where an argument started, just try to finish it with positive feelings whenever possible. It's often counter productive to try and explain what you where thinking or what you misinterpreted earlier.

IV- It's really ok to lose it once in a while. Never getting upset can just come across as an air of moral superiority.

Arguments are inevitable, so put your effort into being emotionally honest. Stand up for what you believe. As long as you feel like you're both on the same team and working to some common goal you won't want to get into denigrating personal attacks or corrosive belittlement, etc...
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:06 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

She's angry and I'm trying to solve problems and it's not working so I become angry at the idea that I can't fix anything.

This really stuck out to me. Your girlfriend is bringing up a systemic problem, i.e. that she feels you aren't being careful or thoughtful or whatever it is that's at the root of her complaints that you didn't take out the trash or put your shoes in the right place or whatever. This has a lot more to do with her big-picture emotional feelings about the state of the relationship and who you are as a person and how you act and participate in her life: It has very little to do with you saying 'Oh, okay, I'll move my shoes.' In other words, you are addressing the symptoms of the problem she is bringing up instead of the problem itself. In addition, her concern isn't so much about practical considerations as it is about emotional considerations, and it's very important that you first address her emotional concerns before you attend to practical concerns: Don't try to end the argument prematurely by 'solving problems' or 'fixing anything,' realize that the argument is occurring because of an emotional response to something.

Express to your girlfriend that you empathize with her-- whether you agree with her or not, don't undermine the legitimacy of her emotions. Say things like 'I can see why you feel hurt by that,' and mean it. Don't think of this as a math problem that your girlfriend is proposing and that you need to solve. It's important to address problems in the relationship not as two people on oppositional sides, but as two people together who are bringing up issues that are of concern to each of them because they're on the same team-- then the two of you, together, can attempt to solve the problem that is affecting you both, whatever it may be.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:08 AM on June 9, 2010 [10 favorites]

Some of this rings a bell for me WRT a past relationship.

I: If you notice that she's blowing up over something trivial, stop her right there and say, "Look, obviously something else is on your mind. Let's talk about that." This doesn't work instantly, but I found that getting my then-girlfriend to be more mindful about her own emotions made things smoother in general. I also had to explain to her, more than once, that I am not psychic, so I can't perfectly intuit whatever is really bothering her.

II: dunno

III: dunno

IV: She's going to have to accept you, warts and all, or not. Explain to her "this is who I am." In my case, I think it was my flat affect that contributed to the demise of that relationship, because at some level, she wanted more drama and turmoil.
posted by adamrice at 10:08 AM on June 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

A. Don't think of her as "women", but as a unique individual who is herself and not a bundle of gender-related traits.

B. Check out this thread.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 10:11 AM on June 9, 2010

Show her this question. It is a fairly objective start to the discussion. I'd also suggest having a 3rd party (a marriage counselor) help you analyze how you two "fight".
posted by TheBones at 10:12 AM on June 9, 2010

Ouf, this sounds intense. Firstly, I really think you could really benefit from having a trained professional help you learn to hone your communication skills (I speak from experience).

My take on all of your Categories is that both of you crave to be heard and understood and neither of you feels like the other person is really listening to you. In all relationships, regardless of gender, each person's role is to communicate their needs and desires and listen to, and seek to understand, the other person's/ people's. Neither of you necessarily has to 'fix' something, and generally, having your needs and desires acknowledged is enough to make you feel better.

Some possible suggestions:

For Category I arguments: why not focus on one particular issue at a time, listening to each other? Both of you should practice saying key communication phrases like, 'how does that make you feel?' 'what about that particularly bothers you?' 'what would you like me to do to make you feel better about it?' Likewise, both of you should listen to each other. The goal is not to 'win' - it's to understand.

Regarding the marriage issue, have you told her how you feel? Something along the lines of, 'I know you are very concerned about where this is heading, but I'm not ready for marriage because of X' (Acknowledging her feelings, but also stating clearly your own).

Category II: 'Honey, I appreciate that you want to help, but I'd really like to work this out on my own' or 'I don't necessarily need you to fix this - please just listen to me' are phrases that I use when Mr. Brambory wants to give me advice I don't really want at the time. Also, if you feel like she, or anyone else, is treating you like a child, say so - 'I know you mean well, but at the moment I feel like you are talking down to me' (the 'feel' bit is important--this is how you are feeling, but possibly not what she is intending)

Category III: I'm guessing she has apologised before you think she has really understood what you are feeling. You might feel like she is trying to 'shut you up' with a quick apology. Both of you might feel better if you acknowledge that she feels sorry - 'Thank you for the apology, Love. I feel quite strongly about this. Can you please keep listening to me? I want to make sure you understand how this makes me feel.'

Category IV: You don't have a specific 'job' and you shouldn't be overly-supressing your emotions to make anyone feel better. Perhaps she feels like you aren't expressing your thoughts and feelings at all - which are important to her. She wants to know what you are feeling. So, tell her. Both of you should aim to be nice to each other, even when you're upset, but also to be honest.

Learning to communicate is hard and, like I said before, it's really useful to have an unbiased person help you.
posted by brambory at 10:15 AM on June 9, 2010

To me, my job is to be the reassure-er, the comforter. My job is not to get upset.
How can I have her feel comfortable with the level of emotion I'm showing?

I think she is probably being pretty reasonable here, and she may need specific kinds of emotional support that you aren't giving her. Sometimes people don't want to be reassured, they want someone to empathize with them and share what they are feeling. Your "job" in a relationship in any given situation isn't really something you unilaterally decide on, there is more of a give and take even if you don't explicitly talk about what you expect from each other.

To take an extreme example, if she comes to you crying and says "My cat just died," if you show no emotion at all or say "That's okay, she was old anyway," you're not going to be providing the kind of emotional support she needs in that situation. It doesn't matter how you feel about the cat, or that men aren't supposed to cry about cute furry animals, she will probably feel better if she feels like you are going through the same thing she is.

If you are having a hard time empathizing with her on the level she's expecting you to that's one thing, but if you are purposely concealing your emotions because that is what you assume you are supposed to do, you should probably consider being more emotionally honest in those sorts of situations.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:16 AM on June 9, 2010

If an argument goes from taking out the trash to leaving shoes lying around to why aren't we married yet, it's a good bet your girlfriend feels undervalued. You leave your shoes lying around for her to pick up... you're not doing your part around the house... and you won't commit.

I understand that was more specific than you are looking for, but it may tell you something about the pattern of communication between you and your girlfriend.

It's possible she has been bringing these issues up all along, and you haven't picked up on how important any of these things are to her. (A clue... does she often tell you that you never listen? Then she's probably been bringing this stuff up all along.) If you're not hearing how important certain issues are to her until she starts a fight and yells, then the problem is on your end and the solution is to take her requests, concerns and questions seriously well before she gets frustrated and pissed off.

Or, she may not have brought any of these things up ever, thinking that if you really cared, you'd already be picking up your shoes and taking the trash out and talking about marriage. If the problem is that she expects you to do certain things automatically, then you should gently communicate to her that you are not a mind-reader, and encourage her to tell you what she wants and needs, with the assurance that you will always hear her out and be willing to discuss whatever is on her mind.

If you take her non-fighty requests and concerns more seriously she won't have any reason to start the Big Fight in order to get her issues out in the open. If she doesn't ever make any non-fighty requests then the problem is pretty much on her side.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 10:26 AM on June 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

This may or may not be what's going on, but when you talk about "my job is not to get upset," and how she's frustrated/upset with that, are you actually staying "calm" and acting like she's hysterical? Because that's both massively passive-aggressive and condescending. If you're reacting to her openness with her upset emotions by withdrawing, pretending you're calm, and then acting like she's hysterical when she gets more upset that you've rejected her openness, that SUCKS, and it's a move to grab power in the relationship on your part by denying yourself to your girlfriend, putting her down and demeaning her as a hysteric, and rejecting her emotions as unreasonable.

"That's not how I saw it. I did X with intention A, you reacted with Y which I interpreted as being B, so I did Z and now we're arguing and I feel like shit."

Is what you're doing here repeatedly reciting a series of events and reactions AS YOU SEE THEM in order to refuse to listen to the emotional import of what she's saying? As in, you're saying, "I didn't get home in time to have dinner with you because there was a fairly mandatory work drinking event I couldn't skip, it was not about not wanting to be with you." And she's saying, "When you don't get home in time for dinner with me, it makes me feel like I don't matter, even though I know the work thing is important." And then you brush that off because OBVIOUSLY that wasn't why you stayed at the work thing, so her emotional interpretation is wrong. But guess what! You're telling her she isn't important because you can't even listen to her hurt feelings and hear what she's telling you! Which in my example is, "I know you have work, it sucks, I feel a little insecure and lonely and want to know I'm important to you." And instead of saying, "You are the most important thing in the world, the work thing was sooooooooo boring, let's go out to brunch on Sunday, just us," you're saying, "Look, crazy lady, you're just wrong, and your emotions are not important to me."

I know a lot of lawyers, and I know a LOT of lawyers, when trying to win an argument with a friend or romantic partner, will continually reframe the sequence of events the way THEY see it, and refuse to admit the other person's perception is important. Which, okay, maybe you "win" on the timeline or facts or evidence or whatever, but demeaning and dismissing others' emotions to nitpick on details so that you can avoid being found in the wrong and/or prove your justification for all of your actions is a BAD STRATEGY. If that's what going on with you guys, you need to understand that nailing down the details and proving your justification is just going to make her feel LESS listened-to and LESS understood, and you'll be frustrated that, hey, you found all the facts and she STILL is upset with you! In fact it's worse!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:27 AM on June 9, 2010 [36 favorites]

There's no such thing as good advice for what to do when arguing with women. There MAY be good advice for what to do when arguing with PEOPLE. Whether or not that advice is good or not depends on your goals.

So step one is to think about what you'd like to happen. Think about what you'd like to happen when you're not arguing and what you'd like to happen during an argument. The reason this is so important is that strategies are very different depending on whether your goal is "to win" or "to stop the argument" or "to stop your feelings be hurt" or "to come to a mutual understanding" or "to fix a problem" or...

Think REALLY hard about this, and try to be as honest as you can. Most people have trouble being honest about their motives. For instance, very few people are willing to admit that, in arguments, they want to win, because that makes them sound immature. But I bet that's a real goal for most of us, at least at times. You can't move forward until you're honest about your fears and desires.

The most useful skill to have, in any argument, it to be able to step outside it and think about the argument itself -- and the motivations and goals of the people involved -- in a meta sort of way. This is hard to do, because if you're in an argument, you're emotional, and it's hard to get meta when you're in the throws of passion. But if you can't step outside, then it's pointless to ask for advice. If you're controlled by your passions, whatever happens happens.

It might work to write down some meta questions (e.g. What is this argument really about?) when you're not in an argument. Then, during the argument, the only thing you have to remember is the fact that this list-of-questions exists. "Wait. I'm in an argument. I should go over those questions."

For instance, you've identified some patterns in which your girlfriend means something other than what she says. Okay, if this is a regular pattern, then you can ask yourself, "Is that pattern happening now?"

While I'm discussing stepping outside of an argument, I need to caution you that I DON'T mean you should completely remove yourself from it. If you stay aloof, the person you're arguing with will feel that you don't care about her. A great life skill -- tough to learn how to do but SO valuable -- is to learn how to step in and step back, step in and step back...

When you step outside the argument, here are a few things worth asking yourself:

- Have I quit arguing about the subject and am now just attacking the person?
- Do I have any critical needs right this second?
- Does my opponent have any critical needs right this second?
- Is this battle worth fighting?
- What are we fighting about?
- What does my opponent seem to want?
- Have I given my opponent an out that will allow her to save face?

That last question is KEY. People have egos. People don't like to lose. They don't like to be humiliated. If you've argued your opponent into a corner, it can't end will. She WILL need an out. If you don't give her one, she will find one on her own. She will storm out of the room; she will cry; she will throw something at you; she will dig herself deeper into a trench of defensiveness... (My use of "she" here means nothing. You could replace each "she" with a "he" and my point would still stand.)

The WORST thing you can say in any argument is something of this nature: "I won't be happy until you admit you're wrong."

Here's a question I ask myself when I'm in meta: "Am I being sarcastic?" Sarcasm is deadly, and I have a personal rule against it. I violate that rule all the time when I'm in the throws of passion, but I've found that my life has improved immeasurably since I decided that no matter WHAT my opponent has done, if I respond to it with sarcasm, I owe her an apology.

I don't kill myself if I discover that I've become sarcastic. It happens. But when I realized it has happened, I stop. If I have to excuse myself, I do (and if I do, I am honest: "I need a break, because I don't want to fight dirty"). But I do not contribute anything else to the argument until I am able to do so without sarcasm. Sarcasm is the same as saying, "I am smarter than you." And if that's your message than come out and say it. Sarcasm is passive-aggressive.

If, during your analysis, you find yourself hypothesizing about your girlfriend's psyche, don't EVER present your hypotheses as facts. This is a HUGE no-no: "You claimed you were mad at me about X but what you're really mad is Y."

That is condescending, and it's basically saying, "You're a liar." Even if that's true, nothing good will come of it. Unless she wants to be massively humiliated, your girlfriend's only option is to become majorly defensive.

What you can do is ask questions:

"I'm all the sudden realizing that I don't know what you're angry about. Can you explain it to me?"

A HUGE detriment to peace is dwelling on the past. If you step outside and think, "Okay, I thought the argument was about taking out the trash, but NOW I find out that it's about marriage," then the thing to try to take from that is, "It's about marriage."

The past is the past. Let it go. You now know what your girlfriend wants to discuss. Marriage. Wasting time dwelling on, "Why the fuck didn't you just say that in the first place?" get you nothing. So let it go. Move into the present and discuss marriage.

One of the dirtiest moves people make in fights is bringing up the past. "You say that NOW! That's funny, because LAST week you said..."


Last week doesn't matter. What do you want NOW? What does the other person want NOW? Because if the subject is the fact that she's changed the subject or changed her opinion from last week, and you have a burning desire to throw that in her face, then your goal, at the moment, is to call her a hypocrite or a liar. What will that lead to? Is she likely to say, "You know, you're right, honey. I AM a liar. Bad me"?

When you step outside, remember the fact that you and your girlfriend are animals. All these sophisticated layers cover the forces that really prompt most of your behaviors. You want to eat, be safe, feel loved, have sex, feel smart, feel in-control, etc. Which of those needs is being threatened or activated -- in both you and your girlfriend? Is there anything you can do to calm your lizard brains?

tl;dr? Try this.
posted by grumblebee at 10:31 AM on June 9, 2010 [17 favorites]

As many have mentioned, "Fix the hole in the roof while it's not raining." Talk to her when you're both feeling in a good place about this.
posted by devilish at 10:35 AM on June 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

As emilyw points out, you don't seem to notice that you reproduce the attitudes of your girlfriend in your later "categories". When she seems to be irrationally upset and bothered that you didn't respond the way she wanted, in category one, you consider her bewildering and wish to solve the problem with pen and paper. Yet in category 3, she tries to solve the problem rationally by providing an apology, and you consider her thick for not seeing that that wasn't the point. Well, when you essentially apologized for not having your shoes in the right place, and fixed it, that wasn't the point for her, either. You have the same issue. The other person doesn't see there's more to the argument than the immediate problem.

Likewise, in category 2, you're upset that she "talks down" to you, presumably isn't taking you seriously enough. Well, that's what's going on for her in categoy 4 - she is upset by something, and you try to calm her down as if she's a child. She wants you to empathize and take seriously whatever she's going through, rather than pet her and tell her "aw, it'll be okay."

This isn't a gendered problem. This is just about communication.
posted by mdn at 10:36 AM on June 9, 2010 [4 favorites]

If your fights end up being about you not asking her to marry you, avoid asking her to marry you as a solution for the problems. You are either going to deal with her feelings of not being valued or you need to dump her because those are the only two solutions.
posted by An algorithmic dog at 10:46 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you need to work on empathy. It seems like instead of seeing your communication differences as just that (differences that are equally valid) you think your responses and emotions are more valid than hers.

For example:

Nor do I use emotional words (like "angry" "hate" "lonely"). Instead I probably use grounded versions (like "frustrated" "not a fan of" "disappointed").

I see no difference of groundedness between "frustrated" & "disappointed" and "angry" & "loney." These are all emotional responses, but for some reason you're valuing your own over hers.


"I'm not looking for an apology, that's not what I want. I'm just trying to tell you what's going on."

Instead of focusing totally on what you want, why not consider where she's coming from? She wants to give you an apology. Don't dismiss her feelings.

If she's feeling continually dismissed and belittled by you, it's no wonder she blows up and things turn into a huge fight - how else is she supposed to get you to consider her feelings?
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:49 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

The first thing that will help you learn how to "argue with women" is to learn that there isn't one single way all women argue. I mean, is there one single method to "arguing with men"? No, because men are each individuals that can differ greatly from one another. So are women.

I personally am an exceedingly logical arguer, and I am a woman. I've run into a lot of the same problems you do when I've argued with significant others, right down to the apology thing. I despise being talked down to as well.

I'm curious though, these things that she is commanding you to do - is it stuff you've already blown off after telling her you'd get done? Is the advice you didn't ask for, in reality, good advice that maybe you should consider? Are you trying to preserve your power and freedom at the expense of solid rationale and good decision making that your girlfriend might be providing?

Following your girlfriend's advice doesn't make you submissive when, deep down, you probably agree with at least some of what she saying - but maybe you're upset you just didn't think of that stuff on your own.

I can't say where these fears come, but that would be worth thinking about.
posted by wondermouse at 10:51 AM on June 9, 2010

Wow, you sound just like my boyfriend. Are you by any chance an INTJ?

I was wondering the same thing. I am INTJ and I used to have the same kinds of arguments with one of my exes. We would get into an argument over something small, I would try to slow down and see what I could do to fix the problem, she would explode because my lack of emotion (read: yelling) meant I "didn't care". At this point I would realize that this argument wasn't really about the dishes but about some big-picture thing, but by then she was so upset about it that it didn't matter what I said or did so not knowing what to do in this lose-lose situation I would just shut down (which to her just further showed that I "didn't care" when I really I just wanted to solve the problem calmly and move on).

Part of it was that she came from a very dysfunctional family and I think this is how they interacted with each other, she expected me to get angry and yell back which to her would show that I "cared". I would talk to your girlfriend about how her family handles these kinds of things, maybe this is just how they communicate.
posted by bradbane at 10:57 AM on June 9, 2010

Eventually it becomes clear that the argument is not actually about what was originally brought up, but 5 other little things ("your shoes are in the wrong place") and one big thing ("when are we getting married?")

This is not a women thing, as others have said. Some people just like to fish around for stuff before getting to the meat of their issue. After a while, you get to recognize these questions and how I respond is like so: "Where is this conversation or questions coming from, because I'm not understanding what it has to do with what's going on now. Can you explain it to me, help me understand?" This usually gives the other person a "safe" way of opening up on the real issue or just pointing out that I'm misinterpreting things. The point here is that you're negotiating or double checking to make sure that you're both on the same page.

I HATE being talked down to. Little makes me angry or resentful, but being talked to as though I'm a child will work every time

This is your issue and one you need to resolve by realizing it's not all about you. The other person may have no idea how they're making you feel. You need to open your mind and eyes and see where other person is coming, to put your feelings aside a little bit and think about the situation, as opposed to reacting on an emotional level.

Sometimes my girlfriend says "I'm sorry" during an argument at a point where I'm apparently too angry to hear that. I respond, "I'm not looking for an apology, that's not what I want. I'm just trying to tell you what's going on."

I'm betting she's trying to smooth things over or move on to a different phase of the talk/arguement where things start to calm down a bit. By admitting she's wrong or sorry, she's trying to move forward. You however are in a different place, still angry and that's fine, but you need to understand where she is and what she's trying to do and accept it for what it is.

You could say "I hear you and thank you for saying that (or "i'm sorry too, for X), but I'm still a little angry right now, so I need a bit of time or need to get X off my chest," whatever the case may be.

To me, my job is to be the reassure-er, the comforter.

That's one boring job and huge burden and may one day blow up in your face, as you feel you've always been the comforting one, but who comforts you? A relationship is a two way street, not only is she supposed to be there for you but you're supposed to let her be there for you. You're still human, flesh and blood, with needs and wants, so I find it hard to believe that you never, never need to be comforted. Frankly, your attitude here is a bit patronizing of your SO, as it seems to signal that she needs comforting and you never do. If that's the case, then why be in a relationship with you, is she just someone to keep you company and have sex with? You seem to have your "job" in the relationship, well, what's her's?

I think you need to talk to her about your thought process here, that it's not that you're unemotional, but you're A) trying to solve the problem and B) trying to be the comforting one, i.e. trying to be there for her. From there you two should probably talk more about how you argue and where you're both coming from.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:06 AM on June 9, 2010

Yep, I'm an INTJ also. At one point in a relationship of mine, I had my boyfriend take an online Myers-Briggs test because I absolutely could not stand how we argued and I had no idea where he was coming from. I was shocked when he came up with INTJ also and I had to laugh. While it wasn't the result I expected, upon reflection it explained a lot.

Myers-Briggs doesn't necessarily fix relationships, but it can be enlightening to find out the other person's approach to problem-solving. This isn't an official test, but this was the test we took. (I've taken the test before and got the same result, so this seems pretty accurate in terms of Myers-Briggs tests.
posted by wondermouse at 11:06 AM on June 9, 2010

I thought of a couple of relevant gender-specific issues...

About housework: If a woman doesn't keep up with the housework, she is viewed negatively by just about everyone. If a man doesn't keep up with his housework, he is a "bachelor" and just needs a woman around the house. If a woman has to ask a man to do his share of the housework more than once, she risks being asked to "stop nagging". Her stake in the housework game is higher than yours, and her ability to do anything about it is lower.

This is why some of us are unusually grumpy when you leave your shit lying about, get mud on the carpet or leave bits of your beard in the sink.

For me this means being given ... advice I didn't ask for

Lots of men don't take advice well from women - maybe they assume a woman can't possibly know more than them about the subject, or they resent the fact that she knows more, or they are afraid that other people will notice that she knows more.

I have personally several times answered a technical question from someone, only to have them ignore my answer completely, spend a long time working on the problem themselves and finally discover that I am right. After a few episodes of this it starts to get incredibly frustrating and annoying.

Therefore, whether your dismissal of your girlfriend's advice is caused by unconscious sexism or not, it might be getting her goat because this has happened to her far too many times before.
posted by emilyw at 11:13 AM on June 9, 2010 [8 favorites]

Okay, little me, let's work out a few things really quick here:

1. Women are just like men, for the most part, and you should always be keeping that in mind. Nobody's from Mars, nobody's from Venus.
2. You should not be trying to figure out how to argue, you should be trying to figure out how to communicate.
3. The more you talk about the facts of things, the more you ignore the feelings of things, and people only argue when emotions are the root cause of the problem.
4. The things you're complaining about aren't atypical, when a relationship has poor communication.

So! What to do?

CATEGORY I - starting with a question

"have you taken out the trash?" "what time is the movie?"

"No, I'm planning to take it out after dinner." "The movie starts at 5pm." That's it. She asks you a question, you provide an answer. There is, quite literally, no argument to be had here. If you're hearing criticism in these innocuous questions, then the issue is yours, so just don't vocalize them. If you're responding with "No, why should I take it out?" or "Why can't you look it up yourself?" or something else argumentative, then you deserve the argument you get.

Now, if she follows up with "I want you to do it now" or something else that's argumentative, then you should take a deep breath, and stand up for yourself: "I understand that you want me to do it right now, but if you want me to do something, ask me, don't tell me. When you ask me, it usually makes me happy to do what you've asked, but when you tell me, it makes me feel like you think of me as a subordinate instead of a partner."

Will this lead to an argument? Perhaps, but it will be a healthy one -- that is, you've called out specifically the behavior you don't like, you've told her how it makes you feel, and you've told her how you expect her to treat you. That's good, healthy communication. She may respond in kind -- yay! -- or may attack you, yell, freak out, and so on...but then you know what you're dealing with.

CATEGORY II - talked down to

I HATE being talked down to. Little makes me angry or resentful, but being talked to as though I'm a child will work every time.

See category one. Be honest, up-front and undramatic about your feelings when she treats you this way. Refuse to engage on the facts of it, or the "well-you-thought-I-meant-but-I-really-meant" level -- just stay calm and state that you feel like crap when she does it, and that you need her to stop.

CATEGORY III - understanding apologies

Sometimes my girlfriend says "I'm sorry" during an argument at a point where I'm apparently too angry to hear that. I respond, "I'm not looking for an apology, that's not what I want. I'm just trying to tell you what's going on."

If you don't want her to be sorry, then you want her to be wrong, and to acknowledge that she's wrong. That's why you're arguing about facts so much, as if your pain and suffering emotionally will be swept away if only she'll acknowledge that you're right factually.

Relationships don't work that way. Human nature doesn't work that way. It's about emotions, not apologies. If she says "I'm sorry", say "Thank you, I appreciate you saying that." Then take a deep breath and say "I'm sorry, too. Maybe we should stop talking for a little while and both calm down." Then go do that.

In short: if you both feel like shit, who cares that someone was right or not? This isn't a contest, it's a relationship. Either you both want what's best for each other and yourselves, or you don't. If you do, stop getting hung up on the facts, and if you don't, move on.

CATEGORY IV - not showing emotions

I am constantly accused of not having emotions. I react to her obvious emotions with calm. To me, my job is to be the reassure-er, the comforter. My job is not to get upset. When I'm face with a problem, I separate myself from it. Nor do I use emotional words (like "angry" "hate" "lonely"). Instead I probably use grounded versions (like "frustrated" "not a fan of" "disappointed").

This is why I called you little me, and I've learned, so learn from me. It is okay for you to be angry and upset. It is okay for you to be emotional. It is okay for you to be wrong. People will forgive you and it is just part of being a human being to feel this way and to be wrong sometimes.

In this case, you're treating her like an untrusted subordinate, by hiding your emotions and focusing on calming her down. All you're doing is showing her you don't really care and are not emotionally engaged with her on equal footing. Even if you're not comfortable acting out, you should still say the stronger words, and let some of those feelings leak through when you do. Make eye contact, let your face express how you feel -- just stop worrying so much like you're failing if people find out that you feel.

If you're angry, say it as a means of defusing the situation because you don't want your anger to get the best of you, not because it's a carefully selected word. You are a human being. Act like one. If you can't think of the words, just physically express it in a safe way.

Examples of how focusing on feelings instead of facts is a good thing:


"Did you take the garbage out?"
"No, I plan to do it after dinner."
"I want you to do it now!"
"You're not my mom, don't tell me what to do."
"But you said you would do it now!"
"I said no such thing. Stop lying."


"Did you take the garbage out?"
"No, I plan to do it after dinner."
"I want you to do it now!"
"(deep breath, then eye contact) I understand that you want me to do it now. However, it pisses me off when you tell me to do things instead of asking me. I deserve to be treated with respect. If you really do feel the garbage has to go out now, then take it out, or ask me nicely to see if I'll do it. But if you just tell me what to do and expect me to obey, I'm just going to get angry and we're going to argue. How do you feel about that?"

"I hate my job!"
"My boss doesn't have any respect for me, and I have too much work to do before the deadline."
"Hm. Have you tried making a schedule of the work you need to do?"
"Well, if you make a spreadsheet in excel..."
"I don't want to talk about this any more."

"I hate my job!"
"I'm so sorry to hear that. (hug) Why?"
"My boss doesn't have any respect for me, and I have too much work to do before the deadline."
"That really sucks."
"I know! It's driving me batshit insane."
"I've been there. Sometimes there's things you can do, and sometimes you just have to suck it up. I'm sorry you're going through this. Want to go out to [her favorite restaurant] to cheer up, or do you just wanna hug it out?"
posted by davejay at 11:16 AM on June 9, 2010 [9 favorites]

tl;dr version of mine: Stop being a father and start being a partner. Stop being a flawless, emotionless person and start being flawed and emotional. Stop worrying about being right and wrong and start being authentic and real, and get out of your head.
posted by davejay at 11:22 AM on June 9, 2010 [9 favorites]

if she's picking fights twice a week, you can't do some magic thing to make her not want to fight you. besides be a different person, or marry her, or something else way out of proportion.

a fight every once in a while--okay--it sucks, everyone is miserable, you make up, whatever. Even if you're too dispassionate or whatever it's not a big deal because it doesn't happen that much.

Twice a week, the problem is that you are fighting so often that you want to get better at it. But you don't. you want to get better at talking and fixing problems so that you DON'T HAVE to fight about them.

But that's not what this is about--problems--it's about how much your girlfriend likes to fight with you.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:07 PM on June 9, 2010

At first, I don't take it seriously because it seems like an easily-solved problem has been raised. Eventually it becomes clear that the argument is not actually about what was originally brought up, but 5 other little things ("your shoes are in the wrong place") and one big thing ("when are we getting married?"). Obviously marriage is the last thing on my mind in these instances.

I got a big insight into my arguing style with my boyfriend when I read an essay by neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky in, I think, The Trouble with Testosterone: And Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament (I loaned the book out so I can't check). Essentially: in general, women tend to take a lot longer for the physiological symptoms of anger (and, perhaps, other emotions? I can't recall) to subside. So when you and she are having an argument and finish the topic at hand, your physical anger cues are starting to subside, while hers aren't. She's still angry. About what? About whatever comes to mind, especially those annoying little things that niggle at you but you don't bother to mention at the time, which now seem like YOU BOUGHT THE DAMN WHITEBOARD TO KEEP TRACK OF LEFTOVERS WHY DON'T YOU EVER ERASE THEM WHEN YOU EAT THEM SO I KNOW NOT TO PLAN MY LUNCH AROUND THEM?!

Not that I can help you with *handling* it, because even though I now know what's going on in my brain and body at the time, and it makes sense that although whatever issue it was is settled, I'm still full of rage and annoyance and frustration and whatever comes up is going to acquire a greater importance than it really warrants. Attempting to be calm and rational at her is a no-go if she's anything like me, because when my boyfriend does that, it comes across as patronizing, as if my emotions aren't valid. What I would *like* him to do is to acknowledge the validity of my feelings (note that this is the *emotions* and not the *object* of those emotions - the anger is real to me, even though the whiteboard thing I mentioned above, in and of itself, might be overreacting), and then to *go away* and leave me alone until I can calm myself down. Not try to change the subject, because I cannot speak or think clearly and I'm just going to get pissed off at him for trying to make me do so, just leave me alone.

I don't know if that seems to ring true for you - if it does, try discussing what she'd like you to do in these situations at a time when you're not actually arguing. The individual range of variance within each person is wide, and while Sapolsky's theory seems to fit what I experience quite closely, I expect that it doesn't necessarily fit other women.
posted by telophase at 12:12 PM on June 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

There is obviously a ton of very well thought of advice in this thread. I've seen a number of the strategies my husband and I have developed among them, so I can vouch for a lot of it. I just wanted to touch on one small point that stood out to me among the broader stuff.

In the 12 years we've been together, the only time I've ever really talked to my boyfriend/now husband like he was a child was over domestic chore stuff. Mostly because of our personalities and because of some unconciously absorbed gender role stuff, I found myself doing more household work than he did. I hated it. I hated it falling onto me, I hated that he didn't seem to have the instincts to notice when something needed to be done and just do it without being asked, I hated that he didn't take pride/comfort in a reasonably neat living environment.

I'd ask casually and drop hints about trash/picking up stuff/doing dishes/whatever, it wouldn't consistently get done and I'd just flip out. This was about the trash and stuff, but it was also about my feeling like I bore an unfair amount of the weight in keeping our domestic situation together. It made me angry because it's a lot of work that we weren't sharing. And because it made me feel minimized and insulted because without meaning to, I was being stuck with "woman's work" like it was an immutable law of the universe, and that wasn't fair.

What we eventually kind of figured out was that I was talking to him like a child because, in a way, he was acting like a child and I was talking to him the way my mom used to talk to me when I behaved that way. He wasn't pulling his weight and he was kind of happy when stuff got done without him having to devote a part of his brain to noticing what needed to be done and doing it without being asked.

A big part of the logistics of being a grownup, especially when living with another grownup, is the rhythm of domestic duties. It's an ongoing thing for us because neither of us are super organized, but we've made massive strides. We've figured out what chores we each hate less and those are our main jobs. Everything else we do together as a project on Saturday afternoons. We've learned to approach it all like a project and to be proud of accomplishing this stuff together, and it's helped a ton.
posted by mostlymartha at 12:20 PM on June 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

The "Your shoes are in the wrong place" thing is a serious red flag for me. You actually WILL need relationship advice to get this worked out prorperly. All I see so far in this thread is suggestions on how to appease her.
posted by L'OM at 12:28 PM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

All I see so far in this thread is suggestions on how to appease her.

Wow. I don't see that at all.

I see women explaining how they feel and various people bringing up communication strategies. Appeasing is pretty condescending. I don't think many people, if any, are suggesting that.
posted by grumblebee at 1:02 PM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

The "Your shoes are in the wrong place" thing is a serious red flag for me. You actually WILL need relationship advice to get this worked out prorperly.

I think a number of people in this thread have explained where OP's girlfriend is probably coming from on this, and it isn't any kind of aggro controlling OCD red flag place.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:04 PM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

N-thing what everyone else has said about "arguing with PEOPLE," not "arguing with women." Just because you have had a few women in your life who communicate the same way does not mean you did not subconsciously pick them due to comforting, if not healthy, similarities with other characteristics of your other women in your life, like your mom. There may be hormonally related characteristics like telophase mentioned above, but that is not the same as "Men are Mars, Women are From Venus" nonsense.

Category 1 was the hardest for me since you didn't give a response as to what it is she says that starts these arguments. Since I have no idea how one gets from movie time to marriage, I will have to say that how you handle the initiation of the argument is probably more important than the initial argument topic, and there's no Magic-Woman-Speak Eight Ball that will tell you what's on her mind without asking her. If she seems upset when she asks about your shoes or movie times or whatever, answer the question politely and ask nicely if something else is bothering her. "I think the movie's at 9. Are you okay? Did work suck again?" That gives her an opening to skip to what's really bothering her, while feeling like you were listening. If, however, you give rude or dismissive responses to the initial questions, she may get annoyed when there was absolutely nothing wrong before, which may bring up recollections of all other recent times when you were rude or dismissive for no reason, which leads to an argument about pretty much nothing.

Category 2 - Again, there was no real example as to what it is she's saying that pisses you off so much. If it's something like "Hey, I saw it was going to rain today. You might want to bring an umbrella," there is absolutely no reason to get annoyed at all, and it does not go with your stated goal of being a "team." That's totally on you and you need to suck it up and remember she's just trying to be helpful and any negative reaction at all is overreacting.

If she's trying to help with a project you don't want help with, that's trickier, but you can still be nice about it so there's no hard feelings later. (For example, if you're putting together your new computer and she's hovering with interjections about stuff you already know, then, yes, that is irritating behavior. Saying "Hey, do you mind doing something else for a couple of minutes while I work on this? I promise I'll let you know as soon as it's finished." This only works with YOUR stuff, btw. If you two are putting together furniture you bought together, there's no particular reason she can't help with it.

If she's asking you about housecleaning or chores, then there's no reason to argue about that, either. Just sit down and talk about which chores everyone does and when they need to be done by, with the caveat that there's no nagging. And upon reread, no "commanding." No one should be commanding, anyway.

Category 3 - You won't let her apologize because you're too busy "telling her what's going on?" Seriously? What exactly is it that apologies mean to you? If someone is even somewhat sincere, *always* let them apologize. And, in non-important cases, even if they're just apologizing to stop the argument, that's a pretty big white flag there. At that point, who CARES "what's going on?" You can still tell her about your feelings, i.e. "I was annoyed when you overdrew the bank account and then I felt like such at idiot when I had to talk to the teller." Not "I'm angry and here are all the things I'm angry about which I've already enumerated at least once. I will now go into subheadings for each item even though you seem remorseful and have apologized for the main points. I need to make sure you understand every little thing you could possibly have offended me on." You need to figure out what it is you're looking for, but while you're figuring it out, accept the apology and stop trying to pursue something just because you're still mad.

Category 4 - "My job is to be the reassure-er, the comforter. My job is not to get upset. When I'm face with a problem, I separate myself from it. Nor do I use emotional words (like "angry" "hate" "lonely"). Instead I probably use grounded versions (like "frustrated" "not a fan of" "disappointed").

That is not your job. If you think that is your job, a lot of problems could stem from that. You can comfort and reassure someone, an equal even, WHILE showing emotions. If you are naturally somewhat outwardly unemotional, that's fine (though more difficult to parse for other people), but it sounds like you are purposely not showing emotions you actually are having to live up to this ideal. There is nothing wrong with emotions. Being frustrated is not somehow morally better or more self-controlled than being angry. If it's more accurate, fine, but if you're purposely understating things, even to yourself, so you can live up to this made-up role, that's foolish. People do get lonely. People do get angry. People get upset. This does not make them bad or weak. In fact, it would be very difficult to me to talk to someone about how I'm feeling if he insists that all of his feelings were basically Facebook statuses. It would not make me feel reassured, it would make me wonder if he was some sort of psychopath. (I'm definitely not calling you a psychopath, I'm saying that's how it may appear to an outside observer.) Especially because you talk about staying "calm," but then you talk about all this arguing and massive anger. People can usually tell the difference between "calm" and "pretending to be calm but really seething." Rather than get her comfortable with you misrepresenting many of your emotions, I would try to become more comfortable with labeling and owning your own emotions. That does not seem like her problem at all.
posted by wending my way at 1:22 PM on June 9, 2010

Firstly I think you're ahead of the game because you have some pretty thought out and logical perspective of the problem. Secondly I don't think you're being ranty - you sound calm, reasoned and practical in your approach to this, as do some of the techniques you described already having used. Thirdly I think the Tannen book and the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus book offer helpful perspective despite some of the criticism they have received in some quarters. Mars and Venus was a bit of an eye opener for my parents, or rather put into words some of the communication conundrums and behavior disparities they had struggled with over the years. I do think certain aspects of male-female communication and the intentions behind them require understanding that there often two different languages going on behind the scenes. You sound like the Mr. Fix-it described in Mars and Venus, which sounds perfectly sensible in your (our) book, to the point where you can't really imagine why someone would not be that way. But sometimes that good intention can itself be a problem because she's looking for something other than for you to fix something. She's got some other need that needs fulfilling, whether it's to be heard and acknowledged or something else. The books won't be your only solution, but I think can help in generally understanding communication better. Good luck.
posted by Askr at 1:32 PM on June 9, 2010

One important thing to keep in mind is that, when there's a problem, there are almost always two things going on: the broken object and the broken feelings.

Some people focus on the object; others focus on the feels. Both are present.

Example: "You said you'd take out the trash, but you didn't!"

Broken Object: Trash that hasn't been taken out.

Broken Feelings: ?

A certain kind of person -- I used to be one of them -- has a very hard time distinguishing between the two. For instance, I used to think, "Okay, you are obviously upset, and you complained about the trash not being taken out, so that must be what's upsetting you: the fact that the trash is still here. Therefor, if I take the trash out, you'll no longer be upset."

Can you spot the logic error?

You complained about the trash not being taken out,
so that must be what's upsetting you: the fact that the trash is still here.

Actually, several things might be upsetting her -- even if we assume that what's upsetting her IS connected to the trash.

Possibilities include...

- she's upset that the trash is still in the house.
- she's upset that you promised to do something but then didn't.
- she's upset that you don't care as much about housework as she does.
- she's upset that you don't listen to her.

Maybe there's a clearer way she could have explained, "I'm upset that you don't listen to me," but, since most of us don't think out every nuance of everything we say, it's not totally off-the-wall to complain, "You didn't take out the trash!" when she asked you to earlier and you said you would and yet didn't.

By knee-jerk fixing, you are like a mechanic who hears, "I'm tired of this old car" and "solves" the problem by repainting it. How do you know that what tired the car-owner is the paint job?

The moral isn't that fixing is bad; it's that you shouldn't fix until you're SURE you know what the problem is. And, since you're not good at reading your girlfriend, that means you're not sure what the problem is until she tells you what it is -- and what sort of solution she's looking for.


She: You said you'd take out the trash! It's still here!

You: I'm sorry. I'll take it out now. Are you mad at me because I forgot to take out the trash?

She: No, I'm mad at you because you don't listen to what I say!

Be aware that people don't always know exactly why they're upset. So you may run into scenarios like this:

She : You said you'd take out the trash! It's still here.

You: I'm sorry. I'll take it out now. Are you mad at me because I forgot to take out the trash?

She : Yes!

You: Ok, I'll take it out. [You do so.] You still seem mad at me.

She : You don't listen!

You: No, I did listen to you. Honest. I meat to take out the trash. I just got caught up in something and forgot.

She: Well, then what I say obviously isn't very important to you.

You: You know, I can see why you say that. I guess it seems that way, because you ask me to do things and I don't do them. But I really do care about you, and I care deeply about what you say.

She: You don't act like it.

You: I know. I guess I don't sometimes. I'll work on it...

Here, she got mad at you because of the trash, and she really believed that's why she was mad at you. She wasn't lying. She just lacked insight about herself at that moment. She saw the trash and had a reaction. Be aware that many people work that way. They have a feeling and react to it. It may take them some time to understand why they had the reaction they had. AS they figure it out, it will seem like they are changing their story. Don't interpret it that way. Respond to whatever they are saying in the present.

If you escalate the fight ("You SAID you were mad about the trash but OBVIOUSLY it's something else!"), they will be too flustered to figure out what they're really mad about.
posted by grumblebee at 1:56 PM on June 9, 2010 [6 favorites]

One thing you might want to keep in mind - housework is not about the house looking a certain way, it's about her time and her options.

If you don't take the trash out, her choices are to enjoy the stink - and possibly any affect on her allergies from molds - or take her time to do that job, too. If you leave stuff on the floor, like wet shoes and wet towels, the stink and they get the floor wet. More work for her, and if she was planning to stretch out on the floor and do yoga, but your stinky sneakers were in the way, you've now shown that your not having to walk however far to put your shoes away is more imporant to you than her have a change to do some posters and stretching to relax after a long day.

How would you feel if everytime you wanted to do something, something your girl friend had not bothered to do was a roadblock?
posted by Lesser Shrew at 3:36 PM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I read the base note, all I could think about is Gottmann's "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse", which are conversational signals that a relationship will fail unless communication improves:
1. Criticism
2. Contempt
3. Defensiveness
4. Stonewalling
These observations of Gottmann were developed over many years of studying in-depth conversations of couples who stayed together vs. those who broke up.

Criticism and defensiveness are typical of the person who is pursuing the argument and has not learned more effective ways, and contempt and stonewalling (both verbal and non-verbal) are typical of the person who's going for avoidance. Although I am not a Gottmann-trained therapist and I'm not in your relationship, I am somewhat familiar with his work. Although it's easy to say "there's no such thing as 'how to talk to women', just 'how to talk to people', there are some gender patterns (not inevitable, just typical) that often appear. One of these is that stonewalling and contempt are often male patterns. And your so-called "logical, rational, calm, non-emotional" and nitpicking and reframing what the argument is all about is classic Stonewalling. And perhaps some Defensiveness.

Although it may be true that your partner is using Criticism and Defensiveness, she is not the one asking for "how to argue with women", and you are. A lot of the advice above is in sync with Gottmann's advice on relationship communication: Recognizing the legitimacy of her feelings, listening to what SHE thinks the argument is about, realizing that the purpose of arguments is to resolve and compromise, NOT to win or be "right".
Gottmann also talks about the basis of healthy relationships, and they have to do with what he calls "positive sentiment override" -- which means that positive to negative statements to the other person should ideally be at a ratio of 20 good/1 negative. There's also a lot in his work about showing interest in your partner's world during good times instead of being preoccupied in your stuff all the time. Her possible feelings of being undervalued may be precipitating the arguments, as others have pointed out.

I wish I could articulate this better, but I would suggest reading up on Gottmann, starting with the linked material above. And maybe working with a Gottmann-certified therapist if you don't think you can start learning the material to de-celerate the conflict on your own. I know, she's contributing, but the truth again is that she didn't write asking for advice and you did.
posted by lleachie at 4:27 PM on June 9, 2010 [9 favorites]

I'll second lleachie and say that another great resource abotu relationship skills and how to handle conflict can be found in PREP, which details tools that can be used to address each of your scenarios above. Take the class (both of you) or get the book.
posted by cross_impact at 11:46 AM on June 10, 2010

Read "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus." I was one of those typical MeFis who protested against the very notion of it until a friend of mine lent me a copy. Very enlightening, and it's really helped my relationship.
posted by kookaburra at 12:44 PM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Try reading Non violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. First on your own then sharing it together. You seem amazingly clear and adapt and sound ready for some advanced communication modalities and tools. The answers you are looking for are in that book. Wikipedia has a good blurb on it to start.
posted by Muirwylde at 12:14 AM on June 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can't stress how eye-opening all of the advice here has been. For me, each response had something to help me understand the relationships a little better.

For the convenience of future readers, I highlighted book recommendations and davejay's answer because it seemed to summarize much of the other advice, as well as offer some practical examples.
posted by jander03 at 7:34 AM on June 18, 2010

« Older I promise to shoot first if you help me.   |   Special Diet Cat Food Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.