Recently I spent my whole day dealing with arguments. I have listened to six different people talk about the arguments they have had with the people in their lives. All of these people have been men. All of these arguments have been with spouses or significant others. All of these men have been frustrated with their significant others in the arguing process. All of them believe that it is the woman’s fault that they argue. All of them think their relationships are doomed to further arguments. I disagree. I think that arguments are avoidable. More importantly, I believe that arguments are harmful. Arguments cause people to make mean-spirited statements and otherwise attack one another. I believe that people should never argue. And I believe that there is a cure for arguing. The cure is learning how to be sad, but I am ahead of myself. Let me draw the picture of arguing and how people can get the point where they don’t ever argue. The cure is rather simple.
But the cure for arguing is not easy. The process is very hard. The process is simple but it is certainly hard. This simple-and-hard process of overcoming anger and curing anger takes a lot of time. It also takes a lot of maturity. It takes a lot of work. In summary, curing arguing takes time, maturity, and work. Very few people have all three of these essential components. In these pages we will primarily discuss the work that it takes to cure arguing. We will touch on the time component. The maturity component is harder to describe but has to come in concert with time and work. The essential ingredient in personal maturity is knowing who I am so I can be better at understanding who other people are.
Let me tell you about the stories I heard from some of the men I saw today. These men and their stories are good examples of the anger and arguing that people get into. Then I want to talk about how to transform arguments into love. Certainly, that sounds like magic. It is not magic. It is good psychology. Here we go:
Jose is a 22-yer old man of Latino origin as his name suggests. He came to see me because he is soon going to a hearing for sentencing after he pleaded guilty to the charge of assault. He assaulted his girlfriend. His story is a near carbon copy of similar stories I have heard for from many men. The incident involved an altercation between his girlfriend and him, but their relationship of seven years has been fraught with arguments and difficulties with many elements that typical of young relationships: alcohol abuse, drug abuse, promiscuity, dishonesty, and many conflicts over these seven years. More importantly, Jose has no idea of where he is going in life, what he could do for a living, or for that matter what is really important to him. He has a vague idea that he would like to make a lot of money, have some kind of family, and have some kind of life. But he has no idea of how he could get to this life, much less what he could enjoy doing along the way. He works in a factory, “a job that pays the bills” but has no future and is hard work and boring work. He is a bit beyond the drinking and carousing that many young people do between 15 and 25 (and sometimes beyond these years), but he is not sure what is beyond this early life playing.
The incident that happened with Jose, at least as he told the story, is this: he went over to a friend’s house where his friends were playing cards (and drinking). His girlfriend texted him, first to ask where he was, then to ask him to come to be with her, and eventually to demand that he spend time with her. Over about an hour and a half she texted him some 30 times with the texts becoming increasingly antagonistic and threatening. Eventually, she came over to the party and insisted that Jose talk to her. He came out of the house to engage his girlfriend who by that time was irate (evidently for his ignoring her overtures for attention). First she yelled at him, then she swore at him, and then she hit him, apparently several times. This “hitting” was typical female hitting, meaning that she pounded on his chest. At this point, he pushed her away and she hit the ground. The next thing he knew, she had called 911 and called the cops because of this “assault.” The cops came, they interviewed him, and he went to jail. This all occurred several months ago. In the meantime he has pleaded guilty to the assault charge and is trying to figure out what went wrong. I hope I can be of help.
Today was the second time I have met with John. John came to see me because he had, as we jokingly say in our office, the female handprint in his back. This means that John came to see me because the woman in his life insisted upon it (I suspect). Nevertheless, he did admit that he had an “anger problem”, which at least gives me a little hope that I can help him. A man who comes to see me with no more motivation than the female handprint in his back rarely profits from therapy. Men who are pushed into therapy, whether by women, parents, or courts rarely see that therapy can be profitable. John seemed genuinely interested in why he gets angry so easily. He and his “girlfriend” have been together or living together for 15 years starting when they were in high school. They have two children, ages seven and nine. John alternately referred to the mother of his children as “girlfriend” and “fiancé” giving me the impression that he wasn’t sure whether this was a sustainable relationship. He admitted that they argued almost all the time, and certainly every day, and that this arguing has been going on since they were teenagers. I have to wonder how people sustain such unhappy relationships, but that discussion is not in the purview of our current discussion.
Today during our second conversation he told me about how he got unduly angry when he was trying to get his son’s video game to work. Evidently after an hour or two working with wired and keys, looking up diagrams and having U-Tube assistance on his phone at the same time, he ended up yelling some kind of obscenity. His girlfriend/fiancé/wife evidently heard his outburst and came into the room and chastised him for “getting angry so easily”. Her introduction into the discussion only aggravated him further and led to an argument with his “wife” about…who knows what? He doesn’t remember what they were arguing about. He usually doesn’t remember what his wife and he argue about. They just argue about “trivial things” and he “can’t help it.” I hope I can help him.
Charles is an accountant. He and his wife, Rebecca, have been married for three months. They have been arguing for three months, sometimes violently. They report that they love each other “deeply” but their arguments have become increasingly frequent, always replete with accusations and sometimes with violence. Yesterday I received an email from Rebecca stating that Charles had “broken the TV when in a rage.” Then she made the statement that many women make when they are desperate: “I can’t live with this anymore.” Of course, she has been living with it for three months, some months before the marriage, and has no idea of what she would do if she would truly “not live with this” anymore. Charles stated the “rest of the story of the broken TV” by stating that Rebecca and he were arguing last night and eventually he got frustrated and swung at whatever was in front of him. He happened to hit a bottle of pills that subsequently went flying and hit the TV screen and cracked it. He denied that he was “in a rage.” He was just “frustrated with Rebecca accusing him and attacking him.”
It is interesting to note that both of these people are intelligent and capable people. Charles is a successful accountant recently hired by a local insurance company, and Rebecca has developed a significant business that employs several people. Both of them have been married before, Rebecca being married to someone who turned out to be gay, this after she was with a truly unpredictable man who was truly violent. Charles was seemingly happily married to what we might call a southern belle when he lived in Memphis, but his wife had an affair with Charles’ best friend and they ended up getting a divorce. Charles and Rebecca met on the beach in Florida about a year ago, had many hours of conversation and wonderful love making. They went back to their respective states, Rebecca to Wisconsin and Charles to Memphis and continued their relationship long distance for several months and began planning for Charles to come to Wisconsin and get married. It is noteworthy that both of these people are physically attractive and had a fair amount of history with lovers over their years before they met, now in their mid-thirties. They flew back and forth to see each other, texted all the time, and talked as much as work would allow. There was a time during this courtship, however, that Charles ended up in bed with a long-term friend of his, Janice, who then almost immediately informed Rebecca of Charles’ unfaithfulness. This former “affair” (before the marriage) continues to bother Rebecca, and was aggravated by Charles “reaching out” to Janice when Rebecca and he started to have problems. It seems that this incident continues to be a bone of contention for Rebecca while Charles sees both the affair with Janice and the reaching out to be part of the past. I am quite sure that the difficulties these two people have reach far deeper than the Janice incident. It seems to me that their arguing is but a symptom of immaturity in both of them, and that neither of them has the ability to govern their feelings, much less listen to one another.
Jack, an African-American professional man had a long-term tumultuous relationship with his partner, Jennifer until she finally insisted that he leave the house. They had two young children. Jack’s tendency to undue anger had come out in various circumstances, sometimes in so-called trivial matters and sometime in more significant ones. The last straw was when Jack called Jennifer a “f—ing idiot” over a matter of care of the kids.
Sean is a man of all trades and master of some. In his second marriage he found himself in “almost daily conflict” with his wife, Lisa. His perspective remains that he “gave and gave to her” but “got nothing in return but criticism.” Furthermore, “she favored her kids over him” and allegedly indulged them. He underplays the fact that he was never really successful in work, and was a man more of ideas than of production. Their arguments were largely around the kids, the youngest of whom was in the home for their 10 years of marriage. Like Jennifer, Lisa has “had enough” and finally insisted that Sean leave the house.
I could tell you stories of 100 other men who have presented to me histories of anger and arguments that have lasted years and have become volatile and sometimes violent. Few men, so it seems, can avoid falling into female relationships that are devoid of these damaging arguments and great antagonism.
What is an argument?
An argument is a debate plus emotion. A debate is about information, facts, and data. Emotion is about feelings. No one can win an argument because it is no longer about the facts; it is about the emotion. You cannot win over someone’s emotion. Ever try to convince someone of something when your friend is fully convinced otherwise? Your friend being convinced has an emotional connection, not a factual one. There is no use arguing with someone who is emotionally attached to something…or someone. Therapists mistakenly try to convince patients that they should leave their “abusive” partners when these therapists hear the one side of the story about the alleged abuse. Usually, the patient finds another therapist to complain about the abusive partner, but continues to live with her. Remember the proverb, “Convince a man against his will and he is of the same opinion still”?
So it is important to note that you can never win an argument. You can win a debate, and even that is debatable. Who “won” the last presidential debate? Sixty percent of the populace thinks their candidate won, but how can two candidates both win 60% when these two percentages add up to $120%? These are emotional “beliefs” even after a carefully constructed presidential “debate.” But none of these debates are true debates. Rather, they always turn into emotional arguments where each candidate carefully chooses facts and figures that suit his or her perspective. I used to enjoy having debates with my friends and professors when I was in seminary. We debated various theological perspectives and various theologians. One would think that these theological debates would have been based largely on theological, biblical, or philosophical grounds, but more truly, they always tended to become emotionalized. The people in these debates would choose which biblical verses or which theologians to value instead of taking an emotion-free stance by looking singularly at the facts. Most debates are also emotional The same is true in any argument. So please give up thinking you can ever win an argument.
If you give up thinking that you can win an argument…any argument…you are beginning to see how difficult this business of getting over arguing can be. I am not suggesting you give up the feeling you have, or that you deny the facts that you see, or the perspective you have. For the moment I am just asking that you give up thinking you can ever win argument. The best you can have is Pyrrhic victory. Look up the Roman battle with Pyre and see how a victory is not always a victory. So keep the emotion. For God’s sake, keep the emotion. Don’t push it into your stomach and get ulcers, or farther down and get colitis. Just don’t let your emotion get into the discussion by turning a debate into an argument. So what do you do with emotion? That is my next thought.
What are the emotions associated with an argument?
The emotion we most commonly consider a part of an argument is that of anger. Indeed, anger is the most obvious emotion being expressed. But there three more important emotions that occur before, during, and after an argument. They are fear, sadness, and joy. Let me explain how these other feelings are, in fact, the more important feelings in an argument although we seldom hear them expressed. Look at it this way: when you argue about something, that something is some thing. This thing that you are arguing about is something you love. If you have felt criticized or attacked before and during an argument, you love yourself. If your spouse says something nasty about your child, you love your child. If your spouse challenges something about the condition of the house, you love the house. If you are challenged about how drinking too much, smoking too much, or watching TV too much, you love alcohol, cigarettes, or TV. So note that the origin of arguments always has to do with something you love or your partner loves. Rebecca loved her son and thought he needed medication Jack loved his children and thought that he didn’t need medication. The origin of their “final” argument originated in their love for the same thing: their son. And then what they thought was best for his welfare. When I love something, I feel joy. So I love something and feel joy loving that something. Remember that.
Although the thing you love and the joy that comes with it is the original feeling, there is a second feeling that occurs during an argument: fear. You feel attacked, or the thing you love feels attacked. When you are attacked, you might think that you actually feel angry, but that is not true. You feel fear. When you are attacked, whether by words or action, you go into a “fight or flight” mode, but more accurately you go into a “flight first and then fight next.” Understanding that you become afraid as soon as the argument ensues is crucial to curing the anger that usually comes when you argue. If someone attacks you, you will—unavoidably—become afraid. You didn’t know the attack was coming, and you engage in “flight,” meaning that you back up, assess, consider, and examine the environment for any further attack. You may not realize that you are afraid, but you are. Women tend to be more aware of fear in these circumstances than men, but frankly, neither men nor women are particularly good at valuing this very important aspect of the beginning of an argument. This lack of awareness of fear is part of the reason that arguments never go anywhere, and everyone gets hurt unnecessarily. First you have to recognize that you love something and feel joy in the love. Then you have to recognize that you are attacked or assaulted in some way and that whatever you love has been damaged or might be damaged. You become afraid of further damage. This is when people get angry, but they shouldn’t. When they get angry, they are missing a very important aspect of the process: sadness.
When you love something, you feel joy in the loving. When you lose something, you feel sadness in the losing that thing you love. In between the joy of loving and the sadness of losing is the feeling of fear. When Jack heard from Rebecca that his son was being given medication that he thought was harmful, his son was potentially being damaged. His son was hurt. His son was…lost…in a way. When Rebecca heard Jack’s resistance to the medication, she felt the very same things: love for her son, concern for his welfare, and fear that her son would be damaged by the failure to administer the medication. If Jack and Rebecca could have been able to see that the origin of their ensuing argument was about their love for their son, they could have eventually had a discussion and a debate about the medication issue. That didn’t happen. These kinds of debates almost never happen. Rather, arguments happen instead. This is such a tragedy: two people loving a child end up hating each other and yelling at each other over their son should best be served.
The sadness piece is crucial to understanding how to prevent arguments and return to the love that is the origin of all arguments. Ultimately, awareness of the sadness is the cure for arguments. But I am ahead of myself. We have to look at some of the necessary ingredients of dealing with attacks, hurt, fear, and sadness before we can set forth a process of preventing arguments.
Two people having emotion at the same time
Two people cannot express their feelings at the same time. This goes for all four of the basic feelings that we have discussed: joy and sadness that have to do with loving, as well as fear and anger that have to do with defense. However many times I say to my patients that “two people can’t express their feelings at the same time,” this is a very hard fact to convey. My wife and I cannot express our feelings at the same time despite the fact that we have been together for decades and have both worked as psychologists for decades. The problem with most people is that they have not matured sufficiently in their feelings to trust this fact. Deb and I have become pretty good at abiding by this rule of “one person expressing feelings at a time.” If you can’t do this, you can’t resolve conflicts, and you certainly can’t cure arguments.
A major impediment to having one person express feelings as the other person listens is that the listening person probably has the same amount of feelings as the speaker. Furthermore, as the speaker expresses her feelings, the listener’s feelings increase. And most importantly, when the speaker expresses her feelings, the listener hears these feelings as facts, and will want to “correct” the facts. The listening person will be inclined to say something like, “That’s not what I said,” or “That’s not what happened,” or “You’re exaggerating.” So it is very difficult to hear another person’s feelings because feelings are not facts; they are feelings. And when I express my feelings, I am doing just that…expressing my feelings. I express them as facts, but they are not facts. A poem is not factual, and often not grammatically or historically correct. A poem is a feeling expression put forward with words. If people could listen to their partners’ expression of feelings as a kind of poetry rather than as history, they would be able to govern the tendency to “correct” the “facts” seemingly being stated knowing that the words being spoken are emotional. Once you learn to listen to her feelings, as feelings, despite the words being spoken, you will have made great effort to preventing arguments. You can’t argue successfully about feelings. You can argue (more accurately debate) facts…not feelings.
So how in the world to you deal with a situation where two people both feelings? Furthermore, how do you deal with the fact that within minutes…or seconds…the primary feeling is anger because both people have skipped over the joy (of loving), the fear (of further danger), and the sadness (of losing)? It is possible to find a way to manage a situation where two people are both experiencing feelings, but it takes a very basic and important awareness that there are feelings present, not just facts. People argue about facts, or so they think. But they really are arguing about feelings. They just don’t know what they are feeling, much less how to express these feelings. To honestly help people come to recognize that they are feeling joy, fear, and sadness before they feel angry sometimes takes months. Most people come to expressing their anger so quickly that they are almost addicted to anger. They don’t really want to learn the rest of the feelings, much less the important fact that two people arguing are feeling deep feelings. They are not “arguing” about facts. They are arguing about feelings.
Governing one’s feelings
If you can learn to listen to your partner’s expression of feelings realizing that his expressions are emotional and not factual, you will be far down the road to curing arguments and preventing arguments. If you can’t hear feelings, you can’t express them. Once you realize that feelings are seldom expressed well with words, you will be able to give your partner a wide berth is expression and not be caught trying to “correct” the words because you know that the words are only the carrier of the feelings, and not a very good carrier at that. In fact, there are many other media that are far better at expressing feelings than words. Poetry, as we have noted, is a good way to express feelings with words, but poetry also uses spacing of the words and unique punctuation and grammar to accentuate the failure of simple words to express feelings. Music does an even better job at expressing feelings. Physical activity, like dance, sports, walking, or gardening expresses feelings well. My wife is perhaps at her very best when she is puttering around in her garden house, and I may be at my best playing basketball. These are feeling-based physical activities that express feelings and generate feelings. People with what we call naturalistic intelligence generate and express deep feelings when the engage fauna and flora as well as sun and rain. So when we come to expressing feelings in words, we are using one of the poorest media of feeling expression—words–and we need to learn to accommodate to one another when we speak our feelings.
If you truly know that whatever you speak is feeling-based to some degree, you will begin to realize how much feeling you really have. You will discover that when you are speaking about even the most mundane thing, you are speaking with feelings to some degree or other. Let’s say you are talking about work. This could be the work that you do (you like it or you don’t like it); this could be about a co-worker (you like her or you don’t like her); this could be about the product (you like or you don’t like it). In fact, if you would take the feeling out of conversation, it would be pretty dull. So knowing that any time you speak, you are speaking feelings. And you should honor your basic four feelings: joy, sadness, fear, and anger. If you can honor these feelings, they won’t control you. If you honor feelings, you will be more willing to admit that what you are saying, say, about your partner, is a feeling-based statement and not a fact-based statement. Once you realize the frequency and intensity of feelings in normal conversation, you will be able to give yourself and your partner more room to make feeling statements.
When I truly recognize what my feelings are, I recognize that they are far more than words. I recognize that my feelings are central to my existence; I recognize their beauty; I recognize that these feelings keep me interested in life; I recognize that my feelings are one of the best things I have to give to someone else. I realize that I shouldn’t squander them: I shouldn’t throw them out as if they were something to get rid of. I should treasure these feelings. They make me human. Once I have this kind of honor for my feelings, I no longer have to say every feeling I have. More importantly, I don’t have to challenge someone else’s feelings because I realize that the other person has just as many feelings as I do, and that these feelings are part of being human. When I recognize my own feelings as centrally human and see that other people’s feelings are central to their humanity, I begin to govern these feelings.
Governing feelings really amounts to knowing that you have them and containing them. This doesn’t mean repressing them and ending up with colitis or headaches. It means knowing that you have feelings, and it is not always wise to express these feelings. True emotional maturity is primarily evidenced by one’s ability to first recognize her feelings, second to accept them as a central and wonderful portion of being human, and third to contain them. This is what I call “governing feelings.” It is very hard to do, especially when a person is just beginning to realize what feelings are. The primary reason people get into arguments is that they try to hard to put their feelings into words. When they are trying too hard to communicate their feelings, they speak faster and louder. Faster and louder doesn’t communicate. More importantly, faster and louder doesn’t do honor to one’s feelings. Governing feelings begins with this honoring of feelings that I speak of and loving these feelings. Once you truly love and honor your feelings, you no longer have to scream and yell your feelings. Furthermore, you then can hear your partner’s feelings without the belief that you have to challenge his feelings.
Hearing feelings that aren’t true
The hardest thing to do when one is attempting to contain and govern feelings is to hear things from your partner that, in your mind, are not true. For instance, when Sally is talking about her feelings, she says to Jim that he “never listens to her.” Naturally, Jim would want to respond with something like, “I don’t believe in never’s and always’s.” Of course, there are no never’s and there are no always’s. But this isn’t the point. When Sally says, “You never listen to me,” she is speaking her feelings. She is not speaking fact. Unfortunately, Sally might actually believe that Jim never listens to her, but certainly that is not true. He may not like what she says. He may disagree with what she says. He may interrupt her. He may yell at her. But it is not true that he “never listens to Sally.” In fact, he may “listen” quite a bit more than is good for him to listen to. Sally’s statement, “You never listen to me” is not about facts; it is about feelings. She feels something. We can conjecture that the feeling she has is something like, “I have lot of feelings. They are important to me. I value myself and my feelings. I even love my feelings. If I didn’t have feelings, I wouldn’t be human. I want you, Jim, to honor, love, and ultimately understand my feelings.” At the same time is it likely that Sally feels something like, “I don’t feel loved. I don’t feel you, Jim, love me. Sometimes I don’t love myself. I have so many feelings that I can’t seem to grasp them, much less say them.” Or Sally might be feeling something like, “Jim, I am desperately afraid that I will lose you and be alone. When we argue like this, I feel so separate from you that I feel crazy. My feelings seem crazy. I feel like a child desperately looking for someone to take care of me, and I want that someone to be you. But you just stand there hating me, so it seems. I don’t know what to do.” Any or all of these “feelings” might be more accurately what Sally is feeling when she says, “You never listen to me,” but most certainly her deep feeling has very little to do with the stated “fact” that Jim never listens to her, however bad Jim might be at listening.
The hardest thing to do with conversation is to give the other person a wide berth when she is talking about her feelings. This means allowing her to say things that your know are not true without correcting her. More accurately, I am suggesting that you hear words that are not true while simultaneously realizing that the words you are hearing are the medium of your partner’s feelings, and not the feelings. When you do this, you begin to really understand your partner’s feelings, and you really begin to understand your partner. And then you really begin to love your partner because you begin to see into her soul. And when you see into her soul, you know you are in a holy place, a place to respect and honor. It is not a place with words. It is a place where God lives, at least in some way. You will never get to this holy of holies if you challenge the words that your partner says, and you won’t even get to the first door of this holy place if you insist on talking about your own feelings.
Picture this: you hear your partner say something that upon first hearing seems completely wrong, or at the very least, really weird. You are inclined to challenge this “wrong” or “weird” statement. Or you want to ask some kind of rhetorical question that would be a subtle way of telling your partner that she is stupid (remember Jack?). You remember that your partner is attempting to express feelings and that these feelings are initially being communicated with words. You immediately think something like, “Susan is talking about her feelings…I guess. But what she is saying seems wrong and weird. I remember that the words she is using are just the medium of communicating her feelings, and that these words are the best she can do at the moment. It sounds to me like she is speaking Klingon, and I don’t understand the Klingon language. I will need to listen to this crazy language and see if I can detect what she is saying. I need to give her a wide berth. I need to allow her to say something that I know is wrong because I realize that her feelings are not wrong even though the words might be wrong or weird. I better just be quiet and listen to this Klingon until I get a grasp of what she is trying to say.” And I better keep my mouth shut until I begin to understand Susan’s feelings. Then you begin to think, “Wow, this is weird. I am learning Klingon. What a weird language.” Then you might actual think, “I wonder if I am speaking Vulcan when I talk about my feelings.” You need to keep in mind that the words might not be true but the feelings are true.
Taking turns speaking feelings
This is very hard to do but absolutely essential in order to avoid and cure arguments. It is hard to do because of the fact that when you are the listener, you hear things that are not true, and it is natural for you to want to “correct” these things. Furthermore, when your partner is expressing his feelings, he will almost certainly hurt you and offend you, thus making you want to express your feelings. Again, I must say that it is important for the listener to contain her feelings when her partner is expressing his feelings. This is almost impossible to do, but it is more impossible for people to both be expressing their feelings at the same time.
The other night at a dance Deb and I had an experience like this. We were dancing, and unbeknownst to me, I nearly bumped into another dancing partner. So Deb pushed on my back to signal that I needed to guard against the crash. Deb’s pushing me on my back offended me. It hurt me. I love dancing, and I was enjoying going around the dance floor doing the waltz because Deb and I particularly like waltzing in the context of good danceable music and good dancers. Nevertheless, I was offended by the push in the back because it interrupted this fun process of waltzing, enjoying the music, enjoying being with Deb, and enjoying the other dancers around us. So I stopped for a moment and said to Deb that the push in the back, however important it seemed to her, was offensive, and said a little about how it took away the fun of the dance. Deb listened to me, and while obviously a bit yet concerned, said nothing more than, “I understand what you are saying.” On the way home (this was maybe two hours later), Deb asked if she could speak herself about the “hand push in the back”? I said, “Sure.” Deb then proceeded to tell me…her feelings…. She did this only after being assured that I had had ample time to express my feelings earlier. Deb said that as the president of the dance club she needed to be especially cautious about not being offensive on the dance floor. She said further that she had noticed more than once that we had received “looks” (of dismay) when we had nearly hit another dance couple or in some way had caused offense by our style of dancing. She said a bit more about how we, indeed, do enjoy dancing together, but that our style of dancing is not always USA Dance protocol, and that she and we needed to use special care not to offend. She acknowledged my hurt feelings by being “pushed” although it didn’t seem like a push to her. After she expressed her feelings, I had a bit more to say, and she had a bit more to say, and we continued our ride home. An important anecdote to this conversation, however, is that the both of us remained a bit sad for a while. Our feelings were not “solved” even though they had been expressed. We each had lost something we loved; that is why we felt sad. I had lost a good time waltzing, and Deb had lost a time of care for other people. Now, two days apart from this experience, I no longer have any offense from having been “pushed” and I do not feel sad about the situation.
The whole process of Deb and me taking turns expressing feelings worked, but it was not easy. It was not easy for me to stop dancing with Deb, something that I really enjoy. It was not easy for Deb to keep her own feelings to herself until I had finished. It was not easy for her to then bring up the subject later knowing that I had been hurt. It was not easy for me to hear her feelings on the subject because I still had some residual feelings about the push. It was not easy for us to come to a place where we both felt a bit sad about the situation of bumping other dancers. None of this was easy to do, or to say, or to delay saying. But it worked. We are both better for the whole experience. We understand each other better. Dare I say, we love each other better. But it was painful, it was time-consuming, and it took work.
Taking turns does not mean tapping you fingers or feet while the other person is speaking her feelings. It is not just waiting your turn. It is containing your feelings (not repressing them), remembering them, even planning to express them, but not interrupting your partner while she is speaking her feelings. Very few people are able to do this because we are not taught restraint and respect for expressing and hearing feelings.
There are some dangers when you begin to learn the process of “taking turns.” One of the dangers is for the speaker of feelings. If the listener is truly quiet, and even more so expresses some interest in what the speaker is saying, the speaker might become even more vibrant in emotional expression. When people first get the chance to truly express their feelings, they have a tendency to vent more than is necessary and more than is kind. The speaker of feelings might become louder; he might express the same feelings over and over again, saying the same thing or telling the same story again and again. Secondly, if the speaker has a real chance to continue to speak feelings, he might start to ask questions of the listener. These questions will undoubtedly be rhetorical, like, “Do you understand what I mean?” or “Don’t you see what I am saying?” or even more provocative, “Don’t you agree that you were wrong in this?” or even mean-spirited, “Don’t you see that you were an idiot when you…?” Giving an opportunity for a person to speak his feelings doesn’t mean that he has the privilege to mean. If I am given the opportunity to express my feelings, I need to realize that this is a very special privilege that not many people get, and I need to take this opportunity to do my best while also governing my expressions.
Taking turns when speaking feelings is just that: taking turns, but it is more than just talking or just listening. It is a time when two people can understand each other more and eventually love each other more based on that increased understanding.
Finishing feelings together
Deb and I often tell our patients that feelings need to be “finished.” Almost always, our patients respond with the question, “How do you finish feelings?” It is not a question that is easy to answer, but it is essential to learn if we are to understand each other better, love each other better, and learn from times when we hurt one another. It is not easy to “finish” feelings because we all have the notion that feelings can’t be finished until the other person changes his or her perspective, or worse yet, until the other person changes completely, or until the past is somehow changed. It is remarkable how people think that screaming at each other somehow changes what has happened. All screaming does is to lead to more screaming. The task of finishing feelings is a task that requires learning that feelings are good, that they are exceedingly human, that they run a certain course, and that we are better human beings if we get a chance to express the totality of our feelings. When I express the whole of my feelings, I grow as a person because these feelings no longer dominate me. More importantly, if I fully express my feelings (without becoming mean-spirited), I can think better, and I can do the right thing.
I think clearer after I express my feelings fully. But I need to finish my feelings before I can think. And I certainly need to think clearly before I take some kind of action. This is what we say to our patients: feel, feel, feel…finish feelings, then think, and then act. This means that you have to get to the point that you no longer have feelings about something before you can think clearly. The biggest problem people have in their thinking is that they haven’t finished their feelings, so their thoughts are infused with feelings. If I am to think clearly, and ultimately make the right decision about something, I need to have my mind clear. I should not act out of feelings. Furthermore, I should not act out of thinking if I have avoided my feelings. Thinking does not preclude feelings; it should be a result of feelings that are finished. Some people, because of their personality construction, tend to think and then act, but these people have not effectively added the essential element that makes us human and ultimately makes our decision and actions good: feelings. So again: feel (feel, feel, feel…), think, and act.
Finishing hurt requires two people engaging in the process of finishing. It is essential that both parties understand the rules, namely (1) that feelings are central to humanity, (2) that words are not feelings, (3) that people need to express these feelings, and (4) that two people can’t communicate their feelings at the same time. This can’t be something one person does. It is hard enough when two people do it because the listener needs to contain her feelings while her partner is expressing his feelings. If I get a chance to say my feelings, say my feelings, and finally finish saying my feelings, I am then finished with these feelings. Mostly, they need to be said, and they need to be said in the company of my partner who is the person who hurt me. Good parenting is much the same: listen to your child’s feelings, hear them, encourage them, and indulge their expression. This doesn’t mean that you “agree” with the facts that your child sees when he expresses his feelings. He needs to feel, express, and finish. Your child doesn’t need to get his way. The same is true of adults: feel, express, finish.
Finishing feelings means that I get to the point where I no longer have feelings. For the most part, I am speaking of the feelings of hurt, which dominate people’s words during an argument. Finishing these feelings means getting to the point that I no longer hurt. I no longer feel the hurt that came when my partner did something or said something that hurt me. This seems impossible to consider—that I no longer feel hurt by what he or she said to me. But it is possible to get to that point, namely a point where I remember that he called me a f—ing idiot, but when I think about this time, I no longer feel hurt, no longer feel anger, and no longer feel fear. I just look at this as an important time in our life together. I can get to this point only by means of finishing feelings—both his feelings and my feelings. This means that we have to say all of our feelings, be heard in the saying of these feelings, be understood in feeling hurt, and become better at loving our partners. Hard as this is to believe, it is possible. Furthermore, it is necessary. I have to learn from the hurt that I inflict on others, and I need to learn about the hurt that others inflict upon us. First I have to feel it; then I have to express it; third, I have to finish expressing it; and finally I need learn from it.
Just exactly what do I learn from hurt? I learn something about myself, something about my partner, something about the world, and something about God in this process as well. The principal thing I learn about myself is that I am vulnerable to hurt and always will be vulnerable to hurt, that is if I expect to love someone and have someone love me. I need also to learn that I am helpless when I am hurt, as I said earlier, I cannot “unhurt” myself. Finally, I need to learn that if I get a chance to feel hurt, to express this hurt, and to finish expressing this hurt, I am no longer hurt. More importantly, I learn that I can get fully over the hurt while retaining the memory of the hurtful process.
If I really learn about myself, namely that I am vulnerable, inclined to be hurt, inclined to hurt others, and helpless in this process, I can then go on to giving this same grace to my partner. My partner is also human and is also vulnerable, inclined to hurt, inclined to hurt others, and helpless in this process. I learn that my partner rarely intends to hurt me, at least at the beginning of an argument when someone says something that hurts me. Understanding this fact is very important because arguments usually start when someone hurts her partner unintentionally. This starts the ball rolling because the person who is hurt mistakenly believes that she intended to hurt him. If you believe that someone intended to hurt you, you will unavoidably hurt that person back. So if you learn that you hurt your partner—unintentionally—you will then be able to give your partner the same grace. Even though you are hurt, and this hurt needs to be felt and expressed, your partner did not want to hurt you, at least at the beginning of an argument. She just said something that caused a reaction in you. Deb did not intend to hurt me when she pushed me in the back while we were dancing. She was only trying to take care of other dancers, and take care of me in the process. I know that she did not intend to hurt me, and when I told her about my feelings, I did not suggest that she was some kind of a bad person for hurting me. I just expressed my feelings, and had the privilege of having space to do that—so that these feelings could finish.
When I finish feelings, I also learn something about humanity and God. I learn that we are all inclined to hurt one another. We all are hurt because we are vulnerable to hurt. We are all helpless when we are hurt, and we can’t unhurt ourselves. This is important. But more important is this fact: hurt is necessary in life, not just an unfortunate experience. I have to be hurt to grow as a person. Growing pains are not just things that happen in childhood and adolescence. They are not just physical. They are emotional. I need to be hurt to be more aware of myself, to be more aware of other people, and to be generally more aware of how God’s world operates. It operates with trial and error, with ups and downs, with hurt and recovery from hurt. If I learn this important aspect of humanity and of God, I will be better at loving, I will be a better person, and I will also hurt other people less often.
Coming together: finding truth together; doing the right thing together
This is the real task: coming together. You will remember that when you met, you found each other attractive. You liked what you saw and heard. Your partner liked what she saw and heard. You came together. Our discussion is about finding a way to come together in a new way, a deeper way, and a lasting way. It is about finding doing the right thing, which is the right thing for you and the right thing for your partner. And if you find the right thing to do for you as well as for your partner, you will find that the same thing is good for the other people who are around you. The ultimate goal in this very feeling-based process is not the enhancement and expression of feelings, but rather to find a way to do the right thing. To find the right thing, we have to find truth. And to find truth we have to find, feel, and finish the feelings that will lead us to this truth. Feelings first, thinking second, and action third.
Finding truth requires that we go through this challenging process of feeling a lot, particularly the feeling of hurt so that we can get to the point that we understand something. I understand more about Deb, more about dancing, in particular my style of dancing, and more about other people having been…hurt…and expressing this hurt. Now, a couple of days past this dance incident, my hurt is not important at all. What is important is how I can be a better person, even in this rather unimportant situation of dancing. Dancing is not the world to me, but frankly, it is the world to some people, especially to expert dancers. I can be a better person if I am simply more aware of myself, whether in dancing or in some other aspect of life.
Finding truth is usually painful because it usually erupts from the experience hurt. Sometimes the truth we find is mild, like my learning to dance more carefully. Sometimes the pain is moderate, like hearing that your partner is bored with something that is dear to your heart. Sometimes the pain is severe, like hearing your partner saying that he doesn’t love you anymore. Know this: the more intense the pain, the more important the truth. I spent a couple of hours with a couple in severe marital difficulty including with severe pain that they had inflicted upon each other for many months. When we got through feeling the intensity of this pain replete with allegations, threats, old hurts, and fear of new hurts, we got to a place where they loved each other more than ever. We have a way to go yet together, but this couple has learned that to get to the right action, we have to have the right thinking, and to get to the right thinking we have to have an expression of feeling. In this case we moved from, “I hate you” to “I love you,” but in between these two statements were voluminous amounts of hurt expressed. This couple discovered that they dearly loved each other, but more importantly, they discovered that the hurt that they had experienced from one another generated from their love for one another. Between the “I hate you” and the “I love you,” there was lots of hurt expressed…and expressed…and expressed…until it finished.
It is a central belief in our understanding of the world, of reality, and of God that “if something is true, it is good however much it hurts.” Secondly, when something is true for one person, it is true for another person. Truth is absolute. But feelings are not. Remember: a person can express feelings all over the place and not really be speaking truth however he might feel it. He is expressing feelings, and feelings are always true even though the facts may not be. When two people find truth together, they discover that it is good for both of them. When people really begin to realize the fact that they are seeking truth, and ultimately some action that results from truth, they are ready to rock and roll in life. Life becomes more exciting, even the prospect of being hurt. We never get to the point when we look forward to being hurt; rather, we get to the point of knowing that hurt is unavoidable, necessary, and ultimately life-enhancing—albeit with a fair amount of distress in between.
Finding truth ultimately means doing something. In trivial matters like bumping into other people on the dance floor, we can arrive at this truth fairly easily: I need to be more careful in my dancing. Perhaps also, Deb needs to be a bit more careful in how she corrects my dancing. This is not too hard to do (although I hope you can see that these “trivial” hurts can get out of hand). For more important hurts, there is deeper thinking, and there is a deeper truth, which means that there will be more significant action. Do I need to sell my house? Do I need to move to Colorado? Do I need to quit my job? Do I need to have another child? Do I need…to divorce—even though I love my spouse? These are not questions that are easily answered, but the answer lies in feelings, which lead to thinking, which leads to truth, which leads to action.
Feel, feel, feel…, finish feelings, think (find truth), and act. Your action will be good.