What can you do when an argument comes at you from nowhere?
Often it’s not the subject of the argument itself but the sudden, unexpectedness of the occasion that throws you.
You’re having breakfast and when you ask for a second cup of coffee only to hear “What I am, your servant? Get it yourself. And while you’re up, how about doing the dishes since you said you’d do them for the last three days? You do nothing around here. I do everything.”
And then you’re off to the races.
Or you’re on the way home from what you thought was a perfectly nice evening out only to discover a thick layer of sticky silence in the car. “What’s the matter?” you ask in all innocence. “Really? You’re going to pretend you don’t know?” You examine your actions-no flirting, no acting out, no misbehavior– and find nothing to apologize for; you declare as much. “Sure. Fine. We’ll just go on avoiding everything that’s important. Either you’re playing games or you’re in denial and I don’t know which is worse.”
What’s the best way to handle tricky situations?
1. Remember that this is a person you laugh with, sleep with, play with, and have seen at his or her best, as well as at this not-very-best. Put your own surprise aside for a minute and say, with a sincere desire to know and with a real wish for understanding, “Where’s this coming from?”
2. Keep your sense of humor and make careful, gentle use of it. But guard against the temptation to become snarky. Lighten the mood; don’t unleash the sarcasm and satire you ‘re just aching to set upon your snarling partner. Avoid a battle of wits, since if your significant other is genuinely upset, it’s a battle you’ll both lose.
3. Don’t change the subject abruptly, but try to move away from the most painful area of conflict. Let’s look at the coffee discussion above: you could say “I’d be happy to do the dishes after I finish my second cup, but how about if while I’m cleaning up in the kitchen-and I’m sorry that I didn’t do them sooner since I did promise-you keep me company so that we can talk?”
4. Don’t raise the stakes unless you’re willing to put everything you’ve got–in or pull out of the game altogether. Arguments, especially the surprising ones, don’t come out of nowhere. But unless you’re willing to plunge into the heart of darkness (or sadness or anger or hurt) at that moment, then you might want to ask for a brief space of time to gather your thoughts. Explain you were taken off-guard and that because you really don’t want to put your guard up, you need a moment to get yourself together.
5. If you’ve been drinking or under the influence of any other substance, if you are very tired, if you’re hungry, if you’re lost (literally, not metaphorically), if you’ve been unsettled by some other event (if, for example, the argument begins at a wedding, funeral, retirement party, baby shower, or God forbid, high school reunion), explain that this discussion is too important to have at the moment and explain that it needs to be shelved, briefly, until you can talk with a clearer head.
Or you can just start singing “Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog/He Was A Good Friend of Mine…” and hope that distracts, or at least out-surprises, your partner. A good surprise can work both ways.