Winning the Argument or Solving the Problem: Which Do You Want?


As a bishop, a psychologist, and an institute director, I’ve had the opportunity to counsel or visit with dozens of couples who come in, trapped in a pattern of conflict they can’t seem to break.

The arguments, the quarrels, and the bickering feed into each other and the bitterness is heartbreaking. In my official capacities, I can usually be of help to them, but it was as a husband that I learned how to really help break the pattern.

Like many couples, Judy and I had our different points of view on such things as finances, decision making, family scheduling, etc. I reacted to our conflicts by trying to convince her that I was right and she was wrong. My college debate experience had sharpened my argumentative teeth and so it was easy to cut through her explanations and point out the errors in her logic. I usually won our arguments (or thought I had). But I noticed that our relationship was getting worse and worse. More and more often, our conversations would end with Judy in tears and unable to explain why. And I would have to face the fact that I, the great expert on how other people should solve their marital problems, wasn’t doing so well with my own. For a long time, I believed it was all Judy’s fault. After all, I was the authority—professionally and ecclesiastically. She was lucky to be married to an expert. She could have an audience with me whenever she wanted.

What I didn’t understand until later was the depth of my own fear. What if it wasn’t Judy’s fault? What if I wrong? That would mean I’d have to change. But change to what? How?

Our temple covenants challenged us to work out our problems instead of considering divorce as some of our friends had done. What moved me far enough to try something besides debating and lecturing was the real love and commitment we had for each other. And because I loved Judy so much, I was finally willing to sit on my own feelings and try to understand her rather than try to win the argument. When I stopped arguing and started listening, Judy started opening up.

But it was much more difficult to listen to my wife than a client. I was responsible for much of her pain and frustration. I was treating her like a child when I thought I was treating her like a companion. I viewed myself as being very rational and democratic. She saw me as being very defensive and authoritarian. It was hard for me to hear this kind of stuff. It couldn’t be true (or could it?). True or not, the important thing was that this was how she perceived me.

It hurt to see my imperfections. My first reaction was to defend with my debate armament. It felt much better to win an argument than face my weaknesses. I was back on familiar ground. But Judy was closing up again. I felt more secure, but there was that wall between us—and I hated that wall. It was scary and painful to have her open up—but we felt closer. I saw strengths in her that I had never recognized before, and our love and respect grew.

I had a choice to make between security and closeness. I’m so glad I chose to risk. We drew closer together and that in itself was enough of a reward to keep trying. I really was doing something right. As we kept exploring, I realized that Judy had some great insights into me. Together we are still learning how to solve our problems and to stop worrying about winning arguments. It took us quite a while to realize what had been wrong with our first approach, and many of the couples I see are deadlocked in the same frustrating position.

In any conversation, there are two elements. The first one is the subject or the topic. The second one is the process—what the individuals are doing to each other in the discussion and how they are making each other feel.

Let me give you an example. One couple that came in for counseling unconsciously showed how the topic of their discussion was effectively demolished by the process. The husband, whom we’ll call Jim, explained to me that they never seemed to find time to talk with each other any more. Why? “Well, there’s church work and running the kids to activities almost every night.”

At that, his wife, whom we’ll call Mary, added, “And there’s your mother.”

Jim admitted, “She does take a little of our time.”

“A little!” exclaimed Mary. “She’s always calling you to do this and that. Does she call your brothers and sisters? Does she call her home teachers? No.”

“What does the Church tell us about taking care of our parents?” retorted Jim. “I never complain about your mother’s cigarettes or cats. Do I complain when we go to her house? I think the two of you could learn a lot from my mom.”

“According to her I could,” said Mary bitterly. “She reminds me that I’m a poor wife and a worse mother every time I talk with her.”

What had begun as the couple’s request to help them find ways to spend quality time together had almost instantly escalated into a full-scale battle. Their words, which defined the topic of their discussion, missed the real issue. As we worked through their problems together, it turned out that Mary was trying to say, “I feel discouraged. Please pay more attention to me. I need your help and support.” She didn’t say it very clearly, but it was the best she could do at the moment.

In our marriages we need to look underneath the expressed problems to the actual problems. This is done by becoming aware of process, instead of subject matter. When we look at process in conversations we can almost always improve communication by paying attention to four steps:

1. Try to understand your partner’s point of view. Focus on what your spouse is trying to tell you, not on how you can make him change his mind. You don’t have to agree, but listen.

2. What’s happening to feelings during the conversation? Ask yourself, What am I doing to my partner? How am I making him or her feel? How is he or she making me feel? As your spouse talks, you may feel threatened and uneasy by what she or he says. You may not recognize this, but if you feel like correcting or defending, be careful. If you yield to these feelings you’ll probably have an argument. Sit on them. I know it’s not easy.

3. Try to understand your partner’s feelings. In Jim’s case, this would have meant asking himself how helping his mother instead of Mary was making Mary feel. How did his mother’s criticism make Mary feel? And how was Mary feeling about herself right then?

4. Let your partner know that you’re trying to understand. Repeat in your own words what he or she seems to be saying or feeling. Jim could probably have dampened the conflict if he’d said something like, “You think I should spend less time helping my mother?” “You really seem frustrated about this,” or “You really seem discouraged.”

Check your own reactions during an argument. If someone seems more interested in winning, do you really believe that he loves you? And are you willing to trust him with your real feelings? Generally, in such instances, people become defensive and combative. On the other hand, how do you feel about someone who looks you in the eye, listens to you, and hears not only your words but your feelings?

Even if there’s enough openness so that we can share our feelings, many attempts at communication run smack into a roadblock: the temptation to give advice. Sometimes when Judy would start to cry after another of our futile debates, I would uneasily comfort her: “Come on, don’t cry. It’s not that bad.” Basically, I was trying to tell her that she really shouldn’t feel what she was feeling. Until I stopped responding to my own uneasiness about her tears and started responding to her pain, we got nowhere in trying to solve our problems.

Similarly, if Jim had listened to Mary share her discouragement, he could have said something like, “Don’t feel discouraged. You’re a wonderful wife and mother” or “Don’t be angry. Mom means well,” or “Count your blessings. Things could be worse.” And probably any of those bits of advice would have pushed them straight back into the argument. It’s normal to feel uneasy when your partner is expressing strong feelings, and this “advice” looks like a fast way to solve the problem so the feelings will disappear. Of course, it’s not. Those feelings need to come out.

You may feel that you should do something, give some help. Being there and caring enough to listen without criticizing is usually needed much more than your advice. “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).

A second roadblock is your partner’s perceptions. It’s not what we intend to say but how we are perceived that really counts. For instance, a major difference between Judy and me is how we perceive housework—what should be done and what has priority. I remember that I used to come home on Primary day and find dishes in the sink because Judy put her Primary lesson first. I, of course, could easily tell her how to be organized enough to get both jobs done—and would, thinking I was helping her. Judy, of course, would perceive me as an enemy attacking her, not as a source of help.

In fifteen years of marriage, I’ve learned that “helping” means pitching in and doing the dishes or getting the kids mobilized to put the laundry away after I’ve washed the clothes. And I’ve learned to adjust my priorities; I’d love to come home to a spotless house and sink blissfully into a chair to read for twenty minutes before dinner is served. Well, until our seven children are considerably older, that’s simply not going to happen. Sometimes we’ve even stacked dirty dishes in the closet when we’ve been expecting company because other things—our children and our relationship with each other—are simply more important.

But how can you be sure that your partner is perceiving your intentions correctly? One way is to “show … forth afterwards an increase of love” (D&C 121:43) by simply asking, at the end of your attempt to understand him or her: “How did this make you feel?”

It takes courage and caring to ask that question. He or she may respond to the topic instead of to the process by saying, “I disagree with you.” If you rise to the bait, the argument will begin all over again. Instead, focus on feelings: “I guess I made you feel bad?” Remember, you’re not an expert on her intentions and feelings. If Jim makes judgments like: “You’re only saying that because you’re angry that mother doesn’t like the way you discipline Terry,” he’s asking for an argument on how she really feels.

Both of these roadblocks to understanding each other are related to a third problem: in most arguments, both people are at fault. We’ve talked about Jim and what he could have done differently, but Mary made some mistakes too. She attacked Jim’s mother, an act that would be almost certain to make anyone react negatively. As we probed what had happened in that particular counseling session, Mary quickly realized the problem she’d created and asked Jim, “It bothered you when I criticized your mother, didn’t it?”

Jim answered defensively, “Yes. She’s had a hard life, and I can’t see why it bugs you that I take some time to help her.”

Mary tried to clarify her feelings while still recognizing his: “I realize that you love her, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m going through some rough times now and I really need your help.”

Still angry, Jim snapped, “You don’t know what rough times are. My mother. …”

I was proud of Mary. Instead of arguing about who was having the roughest time—her or Jim’s mother—she kept the process in mind and answered, “What you just said really hurts. I need your help now, not a lecture. Please. …”

And Jim, realizing what had happened, dropped the argument like a hot potato: “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “Please tell me what’s bothering you.”

A fourth roadblock to understanding the process of communication develops if we communicate one message with our words and another with our tone of voice, inflection, gestures, or loudness of voice. “You must have had a hard day” can mean two different things, depending on whether it is spoken with tenderness or a sneer. If you get the wrong response to your message, don’t immediately defend yourself by attacking your partner: “I didn’t say that! You always misunderstand me.” That’s setting up another argument on the topic. Instead, focus on the process and ask both yourself and your partner, “What did I say or do to make it come across that way?”

One of the hardest things to change is a relationship where conflict has become a habit. Such a habit isn’t comfortable and it’s not happy, but at least you know what to count on. I seem to talk to more wives than husbands because research shows that many husbands are afraid to come in for counseling, fearful that either the husband or the wife will be shown to be “right.” However, the goal of the counselor is to help the couple improve the process they use—so that the two together could work on resolving their differences.

On the other hand, some wives who come in for counseling have been so brutalized by years of argument that they’re not willing to let go of their perception of their mate. “He’ll never change,” they say. And others, sadly, have hoped for so long and been so repeatedly rebuffed in their attempts to communicate that they’re not sure they can face the pain of trying again.

If you find yourself trapped in a cycle of arguments and you think you need some help breaking out of it, what can you do?

Go first to your bishop. He has the primary stewardship. However, a bishop may neither have the time nor feel comfortable counseling couples on their problems. He may feel inspired to direct you to someone else. In some areas, LDS Social Services counseling is available and the bishop can refer a couple to someone who has been trained in marital counseling. But in other areas, these personnel are not available, or sometimes understaffing means that they cannot give every problem the kind of time it needs.

In those cases, most communities have professional help available, either through community, university, or private sources. As a bishop, I rejoice when someone will counsel and work with my people. In areas where I know of practitioners whose values are compatible with LDS standards, I feel good about referring couples to them. In other cases, I would advise the couple to carefully and prayerfully choose a trained marriage counselor who is willing to work with them within the values of the gospel, even though it may take a little shopping around to find the right person.

As for Judy and me, it’s easy to sum up where we are after fifteen years of marriage. There’s never enough time to do everything, and we continue to struggle with our priorities. We probably always will. But we sure feel great about our relationship.

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “Winning the Argument or Solving the Problem” individually or as a family, you may wish to discuss some of the following questions during a discussion period:

  1. 1.

    Why is it important to understand your partner’s feelings during a conversation? How can you let him or her know that you’re trying to understand?

  2. 2.

    Why is listening—really listening—more important than always agreeing on everything? Why is it often more important than giving advice?

  3. 3.

    Why is it true that “in most arguments, both people are at fault”?

  4. 4.

    Do you agree that “who is right is—except in the case of serious violations of Church standards—almost insignificant compared to the process of their relationship”? Why?

  5. 5.

    How do you feel about the author’s comment that although there were problems, “our temple covenants challenged us to work out our problems instead of considering divorce as some of our friends had done.”

  6. 6.

    What kinds of situations in your marriage, your family, or your relationships with others often lead to misunderstandings? Keeping in mind the suggestions in this article, choose one of these problems and discuss it. See if you can listen to each other’s point of view and understand each other as you discuss it.

Steve Gilliland, director of the LDS Institute of Religion at California State University, Long Beach, serves as bishop of the Lakewood First Ward.