How to Argue with a Middle-Aged Man

Tips on how to argue with your spouse and have more productive arguments.

By Jay Heinrichs

Have Better ArgumentsMy wife and I had an argument today. It was great. We used to take pride in not arguing, assuming that it proved we were perfectly compatible. Besides, we didn't like to fight in front of the kids. Then the kids left, one for prep school and the other for college. What's more, I quit my job and Dorothy went to work for the first time in 20 years. Over those two decades, I earned the paychecks while she managed the household. Perhaps because I'm the louder partner, Dorothy let me make most of the decisions: where to vacation, where to send the children to school, even where to live.But returning to work gave her a new confidence and a growing reluctance to suffer fools, including me. She was very good at her job, raising money for a law school; within a year and a half, she was promoted to vice president. Meanwhile, I stayed at home trying to write a book, achieving mastery of computer pinball, and failing as a housekeeper and cook. Dorothy gained a new purpose in life, and I gained...a lot of free time.When I talked to friends our age, I found that similar changes -- midlife reinventions, the absence of kids who once served as an argument DMZ -- set the stage for heated disputes. My exchanges with Dorothy would go something like this.DOROTHY: When's the last time you cleaned this floor?ME: I don't know. But it's not time to vacuum yet. The cat isn't dirty enough.DOROTHY: You use the cat to tell you when to vacuum?ME: Sure. When I have to brush her every time I pet her, that's when I vacuum.DOROTHY: Meanwhile, you sit around playing pinball.ME:[Lying] No, I don't.DOROTHY: Oh, just forget it.It seemed she was always bringing up my failures, and I was always getting defensive. Then she'd drop the subject -- and stew. Here we were, a professional fund-raiser and a professional communicator, and we had no clue how to speak to each other. And then one day I realized I had the solution literally under my nose: a book I was researching on rhetoric, the art of persuasion.The ancients considered rhetoric so important that they placed it at the center of higher education. They learned to speak and write persuasively, produce something to say on every occasion, and make the audience like them when they spoke. I was so excited by my research that at the end of each day when Dorothy got home, I would pour her a drink and tell her what I'd found. We began to practice the skills as we learned them, ranging from the reluctant conclusion (in which you claim to have held your opponent's position until hard facts and sheer logic left you no choice but to switch sides) to the Eddie Haskell ploy (sucking up to a person by anticipating his argument and agreeing with it heartily). We began to argue constructively, and it has made all the difference in our relationship. We communicate better and resolve our differences without anger or resentment, all thanks to cheerful manipulation.Let me explain. We're taught as children to keep our arguments logical, stick to the facts, and be true to ourselves. The problem is, the most productive arguments have to do with making decisions, not finding The Truth. Should you buy a new car, or wait another year? Should you put more money into your 401(k), or take that trip to Asia?Maybe the two of you automatically agree on everything. More likely, your opinions diverge occasionally: You've always wanted to see Bangkok, and he wants to play it safe with retirement funds. Facts alone won't yield an answer. You can research everything about the costs of the trip, and that knowledge still won't tell you whether you should go. Being true to yourself is well and good, but how will it convince a guy that it's better to spend the money while you're still young enough to travel? Neither choice is "truer" than the other. Nor will logic take you all the way to a consensus. And so we find ourselves in the shadowy world of seduction.Rhetorical Arguments in ActionLet's count the rhetorical devices Dorothy and I recently used on each other to debate windows: She wants to replace the aging, splintering ones we have now; I want a truck.DOROTHY: I'd like to use the check my mother sent us to buy custom windows. They're a thousand apiece, so the money will just about pay for them. [Trick No. 1: Define the issue. We had been promised the check all year and had already included it in our budget, but she makes it sound as if it were a windfall to spend as she likes.]ME: Use your "bonus" on windows. Good idea. [Trick No. 2: If you can't think of an effective reply, simply agree. Try repeating what your opponent says but in a slightly less appealing way.] While we're talking about fixing things, we need to find a way to replace our old Taurus. [Trick No. 3: Broaden the issue. It's no longer custom windows versus cheaper windows, or windows versus no windows. It's windows and motor vehicles.]DOROTHY:[Smiles]ME: What?DOROTHY: I see what you're doing. You're broadening the issue. [Trick No. 4: Throw your opponent off balance by naming his attempt to manipulate you.]ME: Yes, but I'm not making up the fact that the Taurus is no longer safe to drive. [Trick No. 5: Bring up something near and dear to your opponent. Dorothy is big on safety.]DOROTHY: I'll tell you what. We can put the expensive windows downstairs where everyone sees them and buy the cheaper kind with the vinyl inserts for upstairs. That will give you some money toward a truck. [Trick No. 6: Make your choice seem like the moderate, reasonable one.] ME: How much money toward a truck?DOROTHY: I'll price the cheaper windows. So, great! [Gets up from her chair] The house gets what it needs, and you're on your way to getting a truck. [Trick No. 7: Act as if the decision has already been made.]ME: Wait a minute...DOROTHY: The DVD you wanted came in the mail. [Trick No. 8: When in doubt, distract.] Arguing vs. FightingI decided to let her end the discussion and puttered off to find the DVD. It was her mother's money, after all, and I hadn't expected to get anything toward the truck.If you're appalled at this sort of manipulation, try using pure logic instead. Do it for a whole day and you may be surprised by the rising level of mutual anger.Let's get this straight: I'm advocating arguing, not fighting. There's a big difference between the two. You succeed in an argument when you persuade the other person. You win a fight when you dominate the enemy.One way to prevent an argument from turning into a fight is to spot those times when arguing is a bad idea. When one person spouts values ("If you just thought about what's right..."), the appropriate rhetorical response is to shut up. You can't change somebody's values in a single argument. Their mood, sure. Their mind, sometimes. But you're not going to transform their sense of right and wrong.Similarly, when a spouse brings up past atrocities ("I've never forgiven you for that"), it's best to change the subject. You can defend yourself, but it won't improve your relationship or get you what you want.To reach an accord, you have to switch topics away from values or blame and toward a choice. Instead of lecturing a husband on what a good man would do or dredging up old sins, you move toward a solution. ("The water on the bathroom floor isn't really the point, is it? The point is, how are we going to keep it from happening again?")In other words, all quarrels have to do with values, or guilt, or choice. Knowing the difference, and when to engage, is critical.Dorothy and I don't play nice all the time, but we have learned, in our debates, to use the greatest tool for consensus ever invented: We speak to the other's advantage. Instead of pronouncing that my choice is good for me, I tell her how it's good for her. Persuasion is not self-expression. It's a selfish act of sympathy.The truth is, Dorothy wins the arguments more often than not these days. She concedes artfully and takes the anger out of confrontations by focusing on choices instead of values or blame. In short, she has lifted argument from something to be feared to a useful little game. When she argues, she can be passionate, timely, and truly disarming, all of which I find rather sexy.And long may the seduction last.Tip: Switch the Tense When You ArgueHere's a remarkably simple way to take the anger out of arguments: Always use the future tense.Language using the past and present often focuses on who is right or wrong. The present tense, for instance, is perfect for name-calling ("You're acting like an adolescent") and sermonizing ("You have no right to speak to me that way"). It's an efficient way to drive each other mad.Choose the past tense for a forensic investigation of who left an empty milk bottle in the fridge. It's also terrific for bringing up ancient atrocities. ("Remember when I suggested ballroom dance lessons and you signed us up for computer programming?")The future tense puts the focus on choices and what's to your mutual advantage. ("Yes, I know a man has needs. But how will buying a Porsche help us put Charlotte through college?") Even if you don't win, you're more likely to keep a cool head. Instead of one of you coming out "right" and the other feeling infuriated, you have only best guesses -- decisions you make together.Jay Heinrichs is the author of Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us about the Art of Persuasion.Originally published in MORE magazine, November 2007.

First Published Wed, 1969-12-31 20:33

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