Tuesday, December 7, 2010

You Always, You Never, You Said, & Ever Since..

There are some phrases, which, when used to start a sentence, are sure argument-starters.

Divorce.  It is such an expensive waste.  And one reason it is so popular in this country is that we can afford it, or we think we can.  And yet, the typical couple that divorces both end up poorer than they would be otherwise, as a result.

Most people, as I have noted time and again, get their normative social cues from the television, and on television, everyone is divorced, or at least arguing and bickering all the time.  So many folks think that such behavior is "normal".

And, as I have noted in my companion Losing Weight Now! blog, people eat poorly, often skipping meals and then binging on 1000-calorie carbohydrate feasts.  As a result, their blood sugar levels plummet and then skyrocket, making them tired, argumentative, euphoric, bitchy, and sleepy, in turn.  Such dietary practices are a recipe for relationship problems.  Throw in the bad normative social cues, and, well, its pretty amazing than anyone is still married.

Arguments are often silly in nature.  Most couples don't argue over the important things, such as spending and their future - at least not in a constructive way that gets things done or changes the course of their lives.  Rather, these sort of stresses just feed the underlying angst, and the actual arguments erupt over silly things, like "You always leave the toilet seat up!".

You Always....  Phrases like that, when they are used to start a sentence, end up starting or fueling an argument.  They are a form of baiting behavior, and when you hear these sorts of phrases, your ears should prick up and you should take steps to throw a blanket on the smoldering argument fire before it erupts.

Why are these phrases argument-starters?  Because they can't be answered logically, without throwing more fuel on the fire of the argument.  The only response to these types of phrases is another argument, so if you rise to the BAIT, you will be sucked into an argument that you never wanted to be in.

Take this exchange, for example:
She: "You always leave the toilet seat up!"  (note how this is an absolutist statement)

He: "No, I don't!  Not all the time!"  (immediately he is on the defensive, trying to litigate his case)

She: "Last night, I went to use the bathroom, and I nearly fell in!"

He:  "Well, that's because you never turn the light on!"
She:  "That's not true!" 
And so on....

When someone makes an absolutist statement like that (You Always) the first instinct is to defend yourself through verbal litigation techniques ("On December 15th, 1998, I put the seat down, therefore, it is not true that I always leave the seat up!").  There is no winning such an argument, and usually there is no point to the argument, anyway.  So why bother?

Taking the opposite approach is often even worse:
She: "You always leave the toilet seat up!"

He: (with biting sarcasm) "Yes, you're right, I always leave it up, every time, without exception!"
Which is sure to elicit an even worse response.  There is no "correct" response to these types of statements.   Absolutist phrases such as  "You always spend too much on shoes" or "You never take me anywhere" or "Ever since Christmas, you've been spending all your time with your girlfriends".  These are statements that cannot be argued, as they are handed down like sentences or statements of fact, when in fact, they are not - they are opinions, and rather lame ones at that.

The secret to avoiding arguments like this is to not use such phrases yourself, or, if you catch your spouse using them, point out that you are using an argument-starter.  Whenever we have a discussion and one of us uses and absolutist phrase, the other is sure to point it out, and usually the entire discussion dissolves in laughter, as we realize what our subconscious was up to.  The mind is a tricky thing, and you have to watch out for its baser impulses.

The phrase "You said..." is of particular note, as it illustrates how arguments can take on a courtroom effect.  Suddenly, the witness is being cross-examined, and his past actions and statements are read from the record.  There is no way you can "win" such an argument, so why bother?  Oftentimes, statements attributed to you are mis-stated.  For example...
He: "You said you'd pick me up at six o'clock!  Here it is, nearly seven!" (the indictment, fact-based, and irrefutable!)

She: "I said about six and I was stuck in traffic!" (Revising the record and proffering a reasonable excuse) "And besides, you said you'd wait for me!" (counter-arguing the spoken record!)

He: "I don't know where we are going to eat now!  We've no doubt lost our reservation!" (Ahhh, the real reason for the fight - low blood sugar levels!)

She: "Well, I'm not hungry anyway!" (throw some gasoline on the fire.  Don't eat - just have a bitching argument instead!)

He: "Fine!  We'll just go home, then!"  (Yes, why not just wallow in misery!)
You get into long discussions of what was, or  was not said, and what was meant, and who was "right" and who was "wrong" when the end result is, who cares?  The real issue is often than one or both of you haven't eaten anything in three hours, and a nice snack and a cup of tea is really the answer.

Many arguments between husbands and wives devolve along these lines, where one party calls into question a statement made by the other (often months or years before) and how inconsistent their present behavior is with that statement.  Comedians even make jokes about that effect - how a wife can remember every thing you say.

It doesn't matter who is "right" or "wrong" in these scenarios, does it?   But for some reason, people feel the need to go on and on about "you said such-and-such and don't deny it!" as if, for a human being, everything they say is a binding contract.  These sorts of arguments never go anywhere, and no one "wins" them - ever.

And yet, for many couples, such arguments go on and on, until both realize they would be happier in a divorce, which is sad, as it is a pretty piss-poor reason to break up a relationship and a family.

When we were younger, we used to have arguments like this, on occasion.  But as we get older, we've become wiser to the sneaky tricks our brains like to play on us.  When we see ourselves going off in directions like this, we try to short-circuit the process to put out the fire while it is still smoldering - before it erupts into flames.

To do this, step back and ask yourself, what is the real cause of the argument?  In 9 out of 10 cases, it is just general tiredness and bitchiness induced by low blood sugar levels.  In the "you're late" scenario described above, this often leads to lower blood sugar levels, as meals are postponed as a result of the argument, which is just the opposite of what you want to do.  Make sure you have some food in your system first, and then address the argument.  In most cases, once you've eaten, you will have forgotten what the argument is all about.

If that doesn't work, try to figure out what the real issue is.  Often the toilet seat being up isn't the issue, but something else - perhaps power in the relationship.

By the way, this whole idea that men have to put toilet seats down is rather silly.  You should look before you leap, as they say - or before you sit.  Women are no longer looked upon as the frail creatures of yore, and they can certainly lower a toilet seat.  And yes, men can "fall in" to a toilet, too, if the seat is left up.  The solution is not to castigate one party and charge them with a "responsibility" for seat position, but for both parties to take care of their own selves, when it comes to using the toilet - check first, before sitting.

Any husband who falls for that power play gets what he deserves.  I worked in an office once, where a loudmouthed secretary tried to cow the men in the office by insisting that they were responsible for "putting the seat down" in our unisex bathroom.  Nearly every day, she was trying to castrate one of the Attorneys for "leaving the seat up".   I quickly put a stop to that.  No one, by virtue of their gender, has a right to make rules like that and then continually browbeat others, period.  Look before you sit!

But it illustrates how people try to control others, and use silly things like this to try to exert control.  Like I said, the brain can do evil things, on occasion, and when confronted, the person involved will say, "Who, me?"  And consciously, they are not lying, as it is their subconscious that is doing the power-play.

And if that sort of behavior describes your spouse - manipulative and abusive - then perhaps it is time for a divorce.  But better to approach such an action with a calm mind than after years of bitter argument.  But perhaps confronting such behavior and changing it might make the relationship work.  A spouse may try to be controlling, and if you let that behavior dominate the relationship, it can be smothering, over time.  If you don't fight back, your spouse ends up disappointed, subconsciously, as they were using their controlling behavior to try to seek and establish boundaries.  If you don't push back, they assume you don't care.

In many cases, people sense, deep down, that they are unhappy with a spouse or unhappy with a relationship.  And yet, on the surface, there is no reason they should be unhappy.  So, to create an apparent reason for the split, they will subconsciously create petty arguments like this.  Instead of saying "I don't want to be with you anymore, because I just don't like you" - which sounds mean and self-centered - a person will subconsciously create a series of bitter arguments to "justify" the split up.

And of course, they will play-back these arguments, often word-for-word, with their friends, to get acceptance and reinforcement from them, to justify their actions.  And often there are "friends" out there who will be more than happy to do this, secretly rooting for the destruction of the relationship.

And, by the way, if a friend comes to you, re-playing a marital argument for your amusement, don't get drawn into it.  Such things are personal business, and when a person comes to you seeking validation for their spousal disputes, no good can come of it.

For example, a friend came to visit once, telling me she was going to divorce her husband.  He had a drinking problem, had wrecked his car and gotten a DUI.  She complained he was cashing his paycheck in the bar and spending most of it, leaving her to fend for the kids and try to make the mortgage payment.

And she was right about that.  I had spent hours with him at his favorite bar, watching him buy drinks for strangers, while she waited at home, dinner going cold (low blood sugar levels, again!).  By the time we got back to the house, she was understandably pissed off.  Why bother being married and having children if you are going to spend all your free time in a bar?

Anyway, for a whole weekend she was visiting, she assembled a litany of complaints and evidence against her husband, laying out the case as to why she would be better of without him.

I tried to be non-committal and supportive.  When she finally said, "That's it, I'm going to divorce him!" I relied that she should do this rationally, if that was the decision she wanted to make, and consult with a divorce attorney and try to do it amicably so as to minimize the costs involved and disruption to the family.

A week later she called, and I asked her how the divorce was going.  She replied, "How can you possibly suggest that I divorce my husband!  I love him!"

So you see where that sort of thing goes.  You are better off staying out of such discussions.  Of course, she did end up divorcing him, eventually.  It just took a long time for her to come to that conclusion.  And in the interim, they had a lot of messy arguments which later were used as the conscious pretext for the divorce.

Why not just cut to the chase and split up without the acrimony?  Or examine why it is you want to split, in the light of day, instead of in the corners of your mind?

After 24 years, we rarely have arguments like this, anymore.  But our relationship is odd, compared to most.  Most folks get up in the morning, shower, dress, and then drive off to work at separate jobs.  In the evening, they may socialize with different groups (he goes "off with the boys" and she spends time with her girlfriends).  In terms of actual contact, most American couples see each other only a few hours a day, and much of that is taken with with watching TeeVee (often in separate rooms) or sleeping.

We live together and work together, nearly 24 hours a day, which can be quite intense at first.  But after a while, it is an interesting effect - you end up living as part of a duality, with each of you being half of an overall being.

We try to walk 2-3 miles a day, and during those walks, we try to solve the world's problems, and our own.  And these discussions often lead us to formulate plans for the week, the month, the year, or the rest of our lives.  And by "talking through" small problems, we avoid bigger problems.

Many other couples we know don't do this.  They go for walks - by themselves.  And they rarely discuss anything more profound than the weather or what was on TeeVee.  The only time they have an intimate discussion is when they have silly arguments, which rarely resolve anything or develop useful plans for the future.  This is sad, as oftentimes, their marriage ends up being little more than a financial arrangement, and less of an adventure in life.  And as a financial arrangement, a marriage or relationship can be a real money-saver, so it is worth saving a relationship if you can, because divorce is so costly, in monetary and emotional terms (know any happy divorced people?  I surely don't!).

Talk with your spouse about "You Always, You Never, You Said, and Ever Since..."  Maybe the next time one of you starts a sentence with one of those phrases, the both of you will break out laughing, and then decide to go get a bite to eat.  It sure beats a night of protracted argument and bad feelings!