How to Avoid the Trap of Arguing by Establishing Bold Intimacy

Shot of a couple looking intensely at each other sitting togetherAuthor’s note: If you are in a situation where speaking freely about what you think and feel could result in abuse or assault, the recommendations in this article are not for you.

To understand bold (emotional) intimacy, it’s helpful to look at its opposite: emotional distancing. Emotional distancing tends to cast a wet blanket on the joys that are possible in relationships. There are countless ways of creating emotional distance, but the common denominator is a withholding and a censoring of honest thoughts, feelings, and reactions (Davanloo, 2000). One form of emotional distancing in romantic relationships is arguing. During arguments, both individuals are not truly hearing each other. Instead, defensiveness takes over. As a result, no one is likely to feel seen, heard, and acknowledged. This is a lost opportunity for closeness, for bold intimacy.

The “Two-Person Relationship”

To address this issue, I want to introduce a new concept. I call it the “two-person relationship,” not altogether dissimilar from the concept of two-person psychology (Kafes, 2017). It includes several elements, but basically it’s a relationship dynamic wherein the feelings and needs of each person are given equal weight. In this way of relating, honest thoughts and feelings are shared directly but not unkindly, and the other is not treated as an extension of oneself. The concept of the two-person relationship does not have to be romantic or even limited to two people, but can apply to any relationship dynamic where increased authenticity and emotional closeness is desired.

What does it look like to not treat the other as an extension of oneself? My point of view doesn’t cancel out or overshadow your point of view; the feelings of everyone involved are acknowledged as having equal validity. When I see you as an extension of me, I operate on the premise that because I want something from you, you should give it to me. It’s denial of the other as a separate person—“denial [of the other as separate] through fantasy of sameness” (Fredrickson, 2017). The formula to keep in mind when you want to honor the other as an individual goes like this: “Here is what I would like, but how would that be for you?” We ask the other to factor in our feelings and wishes in their own decision-making process, but the other is free to decide, to be autonomous. Demands become requests.

What does uncensored and honest sharing look like, and what makes this intimacy bold? Intimacy is the act of sharing what is on your mind. Sometimes what is on the mind is “I love you.” Other times it is “I’m so angry with you a part of me wants to tell you off and slam the door in your face!” The first sentiment is no more intimate than the latter. Both sentiments are just the truth of your experience. Intimacy is to share this with the intent of lowering walls, not to act out and cause harm.

Lowering psychic walls in this fashion can require boldness because many of us were raised to mute and detach from intense emotions, to filter out negative reactions, and to not directly say “I am angry with you.” It is bold because it requires honesty about feelings, including negative feelings, without the intent of acting on them (Lockwood et al., 2015). This is the difference between saying “I am so angry with you a part of me feels like saying something hurtful” and saying something hurtful.

How Do I Stop the Arguing?

The first mistake arguing couples often make is getting sucked into the content of an argument rather than simply staying centered and present with their own experiences and feelings about how the interaction is playing out. Getting into the content of an emotionally charged discussion often leads to defensiveness and prolonged arguments that are rarely fulfilling.

Intimacy is the act of sharing what is on your mind. Sometimes what is on the mind is “I love you.” Other times it is “I’m so angry with you a part of me wants to tell you off and slam the door in your face!” The first sentiment is no more intimate than the latter.

Example

Partner A, with scolding tone: “Haven’t I asked you already to take out the trash?” Partner B: “I don’t appreciate your tone. It sounds scolding and that makes me mad.” Just a simple, non-accusatory observation about partner B’s own emotion and what is making them feel that emotion. At that point, there is no argument. If partner A continues to scold or otherwise verbally treat partner B poorly, partner B simply states: “And this makes me mad too.” If partner A continues to scold, partner B can say, “You’re doing it a third time and it’s making me very angry. I am not willing to be talked to this way, and this conversation is over. If you want to try to talk this through without being demeaning, we can try again in a couple of hours.”

This is bold emotional intimacy. An intimate communication has an open-ended quality, where it’s not so much “I am mad and here is why, end of discussion” or “Here is how I see things, end of discussion,” but instead “Here is how I feel and here is how I see things, how about you?” Lowering walls in this way anchors partner B—strong, clear, and assertive—to their own experience while leaving room for the other’s experience.

If partner A doesn’t respond in a supportive manner or continues to invalidate, yell, shame, or guilt, partner B can end the conversation with a timeline for when to try to reconvene. This is important as it avoids leaving partner A hanging in terms of when the issue might be resolved.

Supporting Each Other’s Feelings

Another important element in fostering emotional intimacy is supporting each other’s feelings. This does not mean bending over backward to try to cheer the other person up, nor does it mean supporting or tolerating being treated poorly. It simply means acknowledging that, based on how the other person sees things, their feelings make sense—even if how they deal with their feelings isn’t helping.

A supportive response simply sounds like, “I can see why you are feeling ______ and I don’t blame you.” It’s important to understand that supporting the other’s feelings does not require that you agree, and if the other deals with their feelings in ways that are hurtful, you certainly don’t have to support that. Disagreeing but remaining supportive can look like this: “I understand you’re angry with me, and I am sure you have good reasons, but dealing with your anger by lecturing me is not okay. Just tell me you’re angry, and let’s talk about it.”

Conclusion

Avoiding the trap of arguing by establishing bold intimacy involves tuning into our true feelings about what is taking place and communicating these feelings in a straightforward fashion. You can’t argue with how someone feels. Simply declaring your emotions and allowing space for the other to respond can stop an argument in its tracks. Taking the additional step of acknowledging that the other’s feelings are reasonable adds the element of emotional support, creating a sense of closeness. When this happens, no one feels alone. The emotional isolation created by arguing fades, replaced by the relational space that can hold and contain differences.

Acknowledgments:

The aforementioned ideas and understandings are inspired adaptations of the work and principles of Dr. Habib Davanloo’s (2000) intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy (ISTDP), as well as the ideas of Marvin Skorman, MA, LMHC (2007), who has adapted ISTDP principles into a framework for conducting couples counseling.

References:

  1. Davanloo, H. (2000). Intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy: Selected papers of Habib Davanloo, MD. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
  2. Fredrickson, J. (2017). The lies we tell ourselves: How to face the truth, accept yourself, and create a better life. Kansas City: Seven Leaves Press.
  3. Lockwood, C., & Ikemoto-Joseph, R. (2015). In the hot seat: Applying intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy (ISTDP) to couples counseling. The Society for the Advancement of Psychotherapy50(4), 26-30. Retrieved from http://www.catherinelockwoodmft.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/IN-THE-HOT-SEAT-ISTDP-with-Couples-Counseling-3.pdf
  4. Kafes, R. (July 2017), [seminar handout] About the Intersubjective Systems Perspective. Tucson, AZ.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Johannes Kieding, LCSW, therapist in Tucson, Arizona

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 14 comments
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  • Luna

    Luna

    August 2nd, 2017 at 1:13 PM

    Do you ever feel that there are certain individuals who really get off on dragging you into an argument?
    Why do I seem to have so many people like that in my life?

  • Johannes Kieding

    Johannes Kieding

    August 2nd, 2017 at 5:09 PM

    Hi Luna. Yes, absolutely, I think that some get off on conflict and arguments. Why you invite those type of people into your life is a therapy issue — a skilled therapist should be able to help you with it! Wishing you success in dealing with this painful situation.

  • Judi

    Judi

    August 5th, 2017 at 10:27 AM

    They’re called family

  • Andrea Bell, LCSW

    Andrea Bell, LCSW

    August 3rd, 2017 at 12:46 AM

    Wonderful article, thank you! Will be suggesting it to my clients.

  • Johannes Kieding

    Johannes Kieding

    August 3rd, 2017 at 8:36 AM

    Thank you, Andrea! Very kind of you.

  • Polly pappropriate.

    Polly pappropriate.

    August 3rd, 2017 at 1:26 PM

    I don’t always see arguing as being a necessarily bad thing. There are times when we all need to stand up for ourselves and get it out the things that are bothering us. Now I know that there is an adult way to do this and you don’t need to get into all the pettiness that often goes along with this. But I don’t want to be made to feel that I am being stifled. I guess if you can say it in a way that is not being argumentative but still gets your point across, then to me this would be

  • Johannes Kieding

    Johannes Kieding

    August 3rd, 2017 at 1:42 PM

    Hi Polly,
    That’s a good point. I also think it’s important to be strong and clear with your position and how you feel, but it doesn’t need to drown out the other person’s feelings or positions. By arguing I mean categorically rejecting what the other is feeling and being defensive/argumentative. This type of defensivensss is what tends to be stifling. Being strong and clear in your feelings tends to be a good thing, in my opinion.

  • Judi

    Judi

    August 5th, 2017 at 10:34 AM

    How do you deal with someone who is all about what you do (or don’t do) and unable to share her feelings or appreciate yours?

  • Johannes Kieding

    Johannes Kieding

    August 6th, 2017 at 9:35 PM

    If the other person doesn’t aspire to change or grow, you accept that this is how you will be treated of you stay with this person. If you’re not willing to be treated this way, and the other doesn’t aspire to change, you leave. If the other has remorse and wishes to be different, various forms of psychotherapy and/or couples therapy can be helpful. Thanks for this important question!

  • Virginia

    Virginia

    August 9th, 2017 at 6:46 PM

    Thanks for your comments and answers, Johannes.

  • LA

    LA

    August 8th, 2017 at 10:54 AM

    This resonates more in terms of family dynamics than couple dynamics, to me. For instance, a mother/teen daughter relationship where neither really grasps the “separateness” of the other and arguments seem to erupt constantly. I would like to forward this to a friend in such a situation but I can see her responding: “this is about couples, not my kid and me” – so, could you put on your list to, in the future, provide something similar about parent-child arguments (especially parents with almost-grown or grown children) – thank you

  • Johannes Kieding

    Johannes Kieding

    August 8th, 2017 at 12:13 PM

    Dear LA,
    You’re right: this is really about any and all relationships where more authentic emotional closeness is desired. My next article will be about problems in parenting and a way to address them.
    Thank you kindly for your input!

  • Ad

    Ad

    October 3rd, 2017 at 1:46 AM

    Partner B: “I don’t appreciate your tone. It sounds scolding and that makes me mad.”
    The assertion ‘that makes me mad,’ could be considered a threatening statement or part of an ongoing dissociative dialogue, that is intended to shut down any direct request or criticism from person A.

    Partner B simply states: “And this makes me mad too.” If partner A continues to scold, partner B can say, “You’re doing it a third time and it’s making me very angry. I am not willing to be talked to this way, and this conversation is over. If you want to try to talk this through without being demeaning, we can try again in a couple of hours.”
    If partner A is ‘scolding’ an ongoing negative pattern, I don’t see how partner B’s response is boldly emotional. It sounds petulant, sulking and avoidant.
    I can see where this article is coming from, but it concerns me that those with avoidant control patterns could read it as a justification of their potentially very negative and harmful, defensive behaviour.

  • Johannes

    Johannes

    October 3rd, 2017 at 12:17 PM

    Thanks for your input. I see all of this as very context specific. In some contexts, sharing your feelings in the way I described could indeed be controlling and avoidant. It all depends on the context and the intentions behind the communication.
    Thanks again for your input.

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