The Argument Is Never Just About the Issue

Relationship Insights at

From “Young and Innocent” (Alfred Hitchcock)

This past week I had an argument with my husband. What was happening between us is what I regularly see happening with my relationship coaching clients. I will use my personal experience to show you what I mean.

Present and past issues

The present issue was about something I had asked him to do before we went out that evening and it wasn’t done when we were about to leave. I was annoyed as we stood there in our winter coats, ready to leave and we couldn’t because we were missing the item. This is the present issue. What happened from there onwards was that past issues were added on.

It’s never about one thing

We argued but really, it wasn’t about the item itself or at least not just about it. I don’t like being ready to go out into a cold winter night, being dressed for outside temperature and having to look for ‘that missing thing’ inside, where it’s warm. The same way as we were getting more and more hot in our clothing, our conversation got more and more heated until we parted our own way.

Different cooling off periods

What I already knew about our different styles is that it takes me more time to cool off than my husband. During the next 24 hours I deliberately took time to think about the issue but only once I had sufficiently cooled off. This is a helpful rule to follow, which I suggest to all: Take at least 24 hours until you discuss the issue. If you’re flooded with emotions, all you are capable to do is to automatically go into defensive or critical thinking and behaviour mode.

Secondary issues

It was obvious to me, what was going on: He was still recovering from jetlag having travelled 24 hours on a plane with 10 hours time difference. There were challenging decisions he and his family had to face in regards to their mother’s care and he was tired, both physically and emotionally. In addition he felt bad for having forgotten to mention that he hadn’t found the item before we were almost ready to get out the door. I assume he was quietly upset at himself but he didn’t say anything.

My perfect world versus his perfect world

In my ‘perfect scenario’ I would have wanted him say something like: “Oh yes, I haven’t found it yet. I’m sorry I forgot to tell you.” Preferably before we got dressed to go out.

In his ‘perfect scenario’ he would have wanted me to help look for the item without being upset. I know that, because I have asked him later.

The truth is that we seldom live up to our partner’s perfect world and still, we walk around hoping and/or expecting them to do and be just what we imagine.

So, how did we resolve it?

As mentioned above, I waited 24 hours to cool off completely. I had thought about the present issue and past issues, mine and his. Then, in a calm moment for both of us, I ask my husband whether he had time and space to talk. I said to him: “This is what I think happened… ” and I laid out what I saw as the present issued. I then added what other past issues of mine had to do with this. I pre-framed what I saw as his added on past issues with the words: “Tell me if you see it differently, that’s what I assume it might have been… “. This allowed him to try it on and accept what he agreed with or give me his view.

This does not mean we won’t argue again about the same things. It just means we hopefully have some more awareness next time it happens.

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