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.

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