Freedom From Running In Circles
Rule #6: I love you enough to stick to the subject. There are often at least two arguments going at once. Too many issues on the table at one time, leads to frustration not a solution. Stick to one subject at a time.
One of the frustrations of marital conflict is the number of times we fight the same quarrels over and over without accomplishing anything. We do what some call chasing rabbits; when we go from one subject that bothers one partner to rambling around two or three different issues that bug the other. Most of the time all we have done is muddy up the water by thrashing around and not settling one topic.
If you look at the example we have given in the Ten Rules to A Good Fight:
HE: “You left the wheelbarrow out in the rain, and of course the wheel is rusted now. Why can’t you ever learn to put things away when you’re done with them?”
SHE: “Look who’s talking! I pick up your dirty underwear and pajamas every morning of the week!
We have a classic shift from the wheelbarrow in the rain issue to the dirty clothes issue. I only gave you a tiny taste of how easily we try to change the subject of our argument. She could have said many different things when confronted with her failure to put the garden tools away before the rain came. However, she probably did not feel really comfortable talking about what she had neglected, so she pointed up something that was one of her frustrations that also put the blame on him! If I were to speculate on how long they might continue this discussion, I would suspect that they are planning on spending the entire evening going back and forth. At the end of it, he would push the wheelbarrow into the shed and she will still have clothes to pick up tomorrow. All they have done was run in circles and get nothing accomplished.
How do you really fix things?
Arguments that end well are arguments that allow one partner to bring up a subject and then find some way to make that situation better. That requires both partners to stay focused on a single issue at a time.
If he had made his frustrations known about the wheelbarrow and she had said, “Yes, I did forget to push it inside”, they are already making progress because she recognized the frustration in her partner and is taking a personal responsibility for it. That is the first step to fixing something. Now she must take the next step.
“I’m sorry that I did not take care of the wheelbarrow. I apologize for my mistake.” In our first example she made no attempt to either recognize or apologize. An apology is made up of three parts. When she makes it clear that she regrets causing him to have a problem that must be addressed, is the first part of a true apology.
“I will make an earnest effort to not neglect the garden tools again.” This is the second part of a true apology. It makes it clear that we have made an intentional effort to modify our behavior from this point on. This does not mean that we will be able to make every correction needed without some failures and gentle reminders. But it does set our minds on doing things differently. Some habits can be hard to beat but she is making the first step.
“Now that I see what my actions have caused, what do I have to do to help make this right with you?” He might say that he will need rust scraped, new paint on the wheel or maybe even a new wheel. (Listen, I said we were learning how to fix things, not that this example was so earthshaking!) This is the third part of a true apology. It takes the responsible person to the final step where they take upon themselves the responsibility to make the damage caused (or the consequences of the error) disappear.
Now that is an argument that accomplished something! That was a Good Fight that left both partners feeling like the issue had been addressed and the solution found. Now, let’s talk about what HE is going to do about picking up his clothes!