How do you respond when an argument isn’t going your way? No one likes to lose an argument, and that is especially true when losing one will mean having to forfeit something that you want. In conflict with our spouses, we can sometimes become desperate to “win” that we will do anything to preserve the upper-hand, or keep “home turf.” This means that sometimes we will prematurely attempt to terminate a conversation that we are not winning. There are five common ways we can intentionally attempt to shut down a conversation.
Intentionally shutting down a conversation can have complex motivations, often we are not conscious of these motives but they are present. Sometimes the motive is purely self-protective. A desire to avoid conflict, safeguard our emotions, or hold back an attack can cause us to prematurely terminate a conflict. In cases of abuse this is an understandable tactic, if still unhealthy. In such scenarios a more comprehensive plan of care, confrontation, and safety is needed. I won’t, in this article, focus on that dynamic. See other things I’ve written on the subject for some insight. Instead, I want to focus on the motivation to preserve our “victory,” our opinion, or our desires. This selfish motive terminates conversations intentionally because it senses a loss is immanent if a disagreement maintains its current trajectory. In other words, if I know I can’t win this argument, then I will simply try one of these tactics to end the conversation before I lose. A quick look at each tactic is worthy of our time.
Exaggeration –> One way we can shift a conversation is to magnify sin and offense. We can do this in one of two ways: (1) We can magnify what our spouse does, or (2) we can magnify what we’re accused of. So, for example, “Bill” is caught in a serious deception. His wife found an unrecoginzed number in his phone and when she looked it up it was connected to an old girlfriend. But, when confronted, Bill launches into a full attack on his wife for “snooping.” “How dare you go through my phone without permission.” Now the conversation has shifted from Bill’s deception to his wife’s snooping – the two are not equal infractions, but Bill exaggerates her offense in order to take the focus off of his. In the second example, we can magnify our own failures in order to draw out sympathy. So, Cathy has overspent the family budget by $200. When her husband confronts her she blows up, saying, “I never do anything right. I work hard all the time around here and when I try to stay under budget I just can’t. I am a complete screw up. I don’t know why you even stay married to me.” The overreaction to the exposure is disingenuous at some level. It is designed to shift the conversation away from the actual over-expenditure and instead compel her husband to feel bad, to reassure her of his love and affection. In both cases, however, the issue at hand will remain unresolved and eventually turn into something bigger. A spouse may sense that the conversation has shifted, or not, but eventually they feel bitter that the issues were never actually addressed, they may even feel manipulated – and now new problems have developed on top of the original.
Silence –> Another favorite tactic of people is the “cold-shoulder.” Silence can, of course, be used for good, but in some cases it can be an intentional attempt to end a disagreement. In such cases silence is not entirely passive, it is an active refusal to engage in the issue at hand. Silence becomes a way of telling our spouse that we simply don’t care about the issue that has made them so upset. We refuse to participate in any resolution. We have made up our mind on the subject and are unwilling to hear any other point of view. Silence is passive-aggression, but it is aggression at its core. Counselor Brad Hambrick notes that physical and emotional difference feel justified, but they are actually sinful responses. He writes:
Again, because these are of the passive-aggressive variety we tend to justify them by saying they’re “better than the alternative.” That is only true if we assume that the only alternative is an aggressively dishonoring response. The true alternative is a mature response between two people who humbly put honoring God and the best interest of their marriage ahead of their personal preferences. (Gospel-Centered Marriage: Communication, 46)
Silence is a way to terminate a conversation, but it does so without any resolution. In fact, this response often makes a spouse feel less valued and important as a result.
Emotional Dismissal –> Silence can fulfill lead to feelings of emotional disregard. That is to say, if you refuse to engage in a conversation about an important subject it communicates to me that you simply don’t care about how I feel. There are other ways, however, that we can disregard our spouse’s emotions. Jenny and Frank came to counseling because she felt like Frank simply didn’t love her anymore. Frank’s response was telling: That’s crazy! She knows I love her. I mean, I still come home at night don’t I? His response was part of the evidence, he had no regard for how Jenny actually felt and was unwilling to engage the problems. If we are too selfish to do the hard work of understanding our spouse’s emotions then we can simply dismiss them and urge them to stop feeling that way. When emotional dismissal comes in to play there is really nothing left to do. If my spouse is simply unwilling to acknowledge that my feelings are valid or worthy of discussion then there can be no discussion. Such dismissals, however, only further confirm a spouse’s frustration and grief. The evidence of the problem is in the emotional disregard, but it remains unaddressed.
Appeasement –> This may seem a strange addition to the list. After all, agreeing to comply is a resolution to the problem. If you surrender your view, opinion, and desires to your spouse then the conflict is over, right? So, when Sally finally agreed to let Fred buy the new car the argument ended. In truth, however, neither Fred nor Sally were satisfied with the result. Fred got the new car but in all honesty he felt resentful every time he drove it. “Sally, ruined this car for me,” he said. The fact was he knew she had only said yes to end the argument, she was still upset about it. And Sally was upset. “Every time I look at that car in our driveway I feel so angry.” Appeasement is simply a “lazy way out of conflict,” says Brad. It is dishonest and can even be a way to punish your spouse. It ends the argument, but it doesn’t resolve the conflict. In fact it will often lead to increased bitterness for one, or both spouses.
Attacking Character –> If we really sense that we are losing an argument one bold approach is simply to attack the person with whom I am arguing. Saying hurtful things in a tense disagreement can be a way to end it. It is an attempt to shift the focus to the person, to attack them instead of engaging patiently with their point of view. It labels others as “stupid” or “crazy” and if someone is “stupid” or “crazy” then there is no point in trying to have a rational argument with them. It had been fifteen years since Jessica had an affair. Her husband claimed to have forgiven her but any time that they got into a serious argument he would just call her “adulterer.” The intent was to say that she wasn’t trustworthy, or that she owed him for all the pain she had caused. Calling each other names, attacking character, and otherwise demeaning one another shifts the entire conversation, elevates it to a whole new plain of intensity, and can eventually end the argument. When a conflict devolves to the point of name calling we have lost all ability to resolve issues, and whatever the issue was is now lost in the sea of hate.
These are just some of the common tactics we use when conflict isn’t going our way. The desire to control the outcome, to get what we want, to preserve our point of view can lead us to wicked, sinful, and destructive habits like this. The Bible calls us, however, to humility and to a willingness to hear others, to listen well, and even to be subject to one another. We are not above being wrong and a willingness to engage with others on points of disagreement is mark of Christian humility. The apostle James guides us in this conversational humility when he says:
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. (James 1:19-21)
His directions invite us to humble listening as our priority in relationships. We are to be quick to listen. You can’t be quick at both listening and speaking; the Christian strives to be quick at the former. We are to be slow to anger too. Each of these conversational termination tactics are a response of anger. They come from the selfish heart that hates losing, hates surrender, hates compromise. Anger will destroy your marriage, but the Christian is to be slow to anger. We are to guard our tongues, as James says elsewhere (v. 26), and that means refusing “filthiness” in our speech. Finally, he tells us we are to be meek. Humility, or meekness, obeys the Word, submits to it. We submitted to it at salvation, and we are to continue in such a state of submission. This is the direction of healthy, humble conflict conversation.
Attempts to end a conflict prematurely are deceptive, selfish, and destructive. Not only do these types of conversation tactics not resolve problems, but often they create more trouble. Evaluate yourself and your approach to conflict. How do you respond when a disagreement is not going your way? Do you devolve into one of these tactics? Are you more interested in winning than loving your spouse? Work hard at humble listening. Be willing to be wrong. Fight for your marriage in the midst of your fights, and in the long run you won’t regret losing an argument.