Provoking Arguments With The Family

Sometimes it amazes me that human beings manage to form any kind of lasting, intimate relationships at all. Each of us is a constantly-evolving and ridiculously complex recipe of emotions, uncontrollable thoughts, unmet needs, delights, troubles and desires – and most of us have a hard enough time just understanding and getting along with ourselves, let alone the people we spend our lives with!

This really strikes me as important. Being me and getting through life is already enough to be getting on with. It can be tricky! Fitting together and sharing life with other people that also have to deal with being themselves every day – it’s a lot to ask. In this sense, long-lasting relationships are a complete miracle!

With this in mind, obviously we can forgive ourselves, and the other person involved (be it a partner, child, parent, sibling, friend or co-worker) when things aren’t going too smoothly.

One thing I’m very interested in at the moment is the role of arguments in close personal relationships. As far as I can see, arguments are very rarely about, well, what they seem to be about on the surface.

For example, my wife and I might be arguing about the fact that the living room is a horrendous mess, and who’s fault it is, and who was meant to clear it up, and we might end up really angry with each other, and an hour later I’ll realise that I didn’t care at all about the state of the living room, I was actually really pissed off about a conversation I had with someone completely different the day before and hadn’t really processed yet. The living room had been the catalyst to let all that out.

In fact, I think that my wife and I, and occasionally my son and I, actually may provoke arguments with each other, completely unconsciously, just to let off steam about something completely different and usually significantly deeper.

The truth is, this is not a fun way to live. The person who wasn’t looking for an argument didn’t need it, was probably having a nice afternoon or evening before the unconsciously grumpy one came along and led them into a big emotional mess. One minute my wife and I are innocently talking about the summer holidays, the next minute we are arguing about some aspect of our parenting that in general we are both pretty good at! The next day one of us realises we were just having a hard time about x, y or z, and our partner got the brunt of it during that argument the night before. It’s crazy.

And at what point, I wonder, do innocent conversations, in this example about the summer holidays, become recognisable by one of us as a vehicle to let off steam about something else? At what point do we subconsciously start to provoke the argument and ruin our evening? The moment we sit down? Half-way through the conversation about the seemingly-innocent topic? Only at the instant things turn difficult?

These are all questions I’m interested in solving at the moment. Solve these, and life would be more harmonious. Perhaps that’s expecting way too much, but in any case, the conclusions I’ve reached so far are as follows:

  • Be aware of when I’m provoking an argument completely unnecessarily, and get out of there fast so I can work out what it’s really about.
  • Be aware of when an argument might be being provoked with me, do not for a moment rise to the bait, and get the hell out of the way. Do not respond! Beat a retreat! No need to be right! Let go! Shut up and run!
  • Process life’s tricky stuff as often as possible with a pen and paper/journal, so it doesn’t spill out into my personal relationships as these crazy and unnecessary arguments.
  • Realise that I am only human and likely to mess up the above three points of very-good-intentions on a regular basis.
  • Many arguments may just be about a need for space. You argue, disappear to opposite corners of the house, and get space – there must be an easier way!

My wife and I have been together for over 20 years, and these days we are in general very peaceful. But there are times when we are stressed or don’t have enough personal space and this argument-picking does seem to be going on. Or am I imagining it?

Are most arguments not really what they seem to be about on the surface? Do humans really unconsciously pick arguments with their nearest and dearest just to let off steam about something else or get some space? What do you think? What can be done about it?