How to Not Argue Back
I keep a tennis ball in my office. Yes, Jessie, my therapy dog, likes to play with it when she visits. But here’s the real reason I keep it on hand: I often use the ball to facilitate sessions. Take this example of Sam and Mercedes, a couple who came to see me because they can’t stop arguing.
During the session, Sam and Mercedes share a recent situation that quickly escalated into an argument that went like this.
After working overtime, Sam came home and immediately started watching TV. Sam’s wife, Mercedes was looking forward to talking. When Sam didn’t want to have a conversation, Mercedes lashed out at Sam for not paying attention to her. In return, Sam told her she was being selfish and didn’t care that he had had a stressful day at work and needed some down time. Mercedes reacted by telling Sam that she’s the one who’s always initiating their conversations and he needed to step up to the plate. Sam then blamed her nagging as the reason he didn’t want to talk to her. Their argument continued to escalate and Sam ended up sleeping on the couch.
I reach for the tennis ball and throw it to Mercedes. Then I ask them to replay their interaction using the tennis ball to represent each of their words and tone.
Mercedes speaks first. “Hi honey. How was your day today?”
She throws the tennis ball to Sam.
Sam catches the tennis ball. “Okay.”
He throws the tennis ball back to Mercedes.
Mercedes catches the tennis ball. “Aren’t you going to ask me about my day?”
She throws the tennis ball to Sam.
Sam catches the tennis ball. “Later.”
He throws the ball back to Mercedes and continues watching his show.
Mercedes catches it. She raises her voice, “You never want to talk with me. You care more about TV than you do me."
Mercedes is about to throw the tennis ball to Sam.
This is where I jump in and tell Sam not to catch the tennis ball this time. I motion to Mercedes to throw the tennis ball. Now instead of catching it, Sam lets the ball fall to the floor.
Me: “Game over...argument over before it even begins.”
I explain to Sam and Mercedes that letting the ball fall to the floor is not the same as walking away in anger, shutting down or withholding. Although she may think Sam is being controlling, Sam is setting a loving boundary for himself by letting her know that he isn’t willing to participate in what feels like an unloving interaction. Since it takes two to argue, you can’t have an argument with only one person. I also point out to Mercedes that she could have taken the same action earlier.
Instead of participating in the argument i.e., throwing the tennis ball back, I suggest five actions Sam can take (and vice versa):
- Remind himself that Mercedes’s behavior is not personal.
- Make ‘I’ statements and take responsibility for his role.
- Move into compassion for Mercedes.
- Move into an intention to learn and ask Mercedes if she is open to talking with him about why she’s so upset.
- Set a loving boundary and disengage if Mercedes isn’t ready to explore their roles in their conflict and how they can each do it differently going forward.
When you take loving care of yourself in the face of your partner’s behavior, you create the opportunity to have a loving interaction either in the moment or at a later time. When both of you are open to learning and willing to take personal responsibility, you’re working together as a team with a common goal of having a joyful, passionate relationship.