When is an argument resolved?

relationships-logoRELATIONSHIP QUESTIONS (#5 in a series)
To access previous posts in the series, use the “Relationship Questions” link under “Categories” and the “Older Posts” button.

How do you know when an argument or disagreement is resolved? And is there anything wrong with just giving up and saying, “You’re right”?

It’s probably good to recognize that not all disagreements will be resolved, if by that you mean that both parties come to believe the same thing. As marriage researcher John Gottman has pointed out, even the most successful and stable of couples still have “perpetual problems” — things they’ve continued to argue about for years.

What, then, does it mean to “resolve” an argument? Again, one possibility is that it means both parties must agree on some matter of fact or opinion. But where the health of our relationships is concerned, I don’t think this is the meaning that matters most.

Here’s my proposition: What matters about the “resolution” of an argument is the resolve to not let the disagreement stand in the way of our commitment to and our love and respect for the other. If you’ve ever begrudgingly acknowledged to someone else that you were wrong about the facts, but walked away from that conversation feeling angry and resentful, you already know what I’m talking about.

That’s why I wouldn’t recommend just giving up and saying, “You’re right” — if by that you mean that you’re just saying it to get out of the situation and don’t really believe it. It’s neither the loving nor the respectful thing to do.

Realistically speaking, of course, you might find yourself in the midst of an argument with someone with whom you only have a passing relationship. You try once, twice, to convince the other person or to get them to listen. But after that, you say to yourself, “This just isn’t worth it.” You pretend to agree, and call it a day. That’s understandable, even if not ideal.

It’s different, however, with family and friends, the people with whom you have an ongoing relationship. To say “you’re right” when you don’t mean it is inherently disrespectful, if behind those words is the attitude that says, “I’m tired of trying to convince you that you’re wrong. You’re being stubborn, and it’s not worth it to me to put up with the pain.”

Think of the consequences. First, you become even more convinced that the other person is stubborn and argumentative, as if these were indelible and central character flaws. That perception will shape your future conversations.

Second, the person may take your words at face value. What happens in a later argument, when they find out you didn’t mean it? They will feel lied to and betrayed, adding another and more hurtful layer to the disagreement.

Third, having capitulated in that way, you’re not likely to leave the conversation in peace. Resentment and rumination is far more likely. That’s not good for you, and it’s not good for the relationship.

The alternatives? First, learn how to listen better. Chances are, what keeps the argument going is that one or both of you feel that the other isn’t listening. You become even more insistent at getting your point across, and less able to take in what the other is saying. Break the cycle. Listen in a way that the other person actually feels heard. They’re more likely to return the favor, and you both may learn something in the process.

Second, decide which things you really can or should let go. By “letting go,” I don’t mean pretending to yourself that you’re not angry, especially if it means going back later and rehashing things again and again in your mind. Do whatever you need to do to calm yourself down and to stop ruminating. Relationships can only stand a certain amount of conflict, so choose wisely. Not every hill is one to die on. Is this issue one about which you’d be willing to agree to disagree?

Third, take a humble and prayerful look at your own motivations. For some people, arguing has become like a nasty reflex; the mere hint of disagreement (particularly in the context of specific relationships) sends them into a fight-for-survival mode. Is that you? If so, then realize that the fight isn’t just about what the other person is saying or doing — it’s about the hot buttons you bring into the relationship. Instead of trying to change the other person, work at changing yourself.