The Art of Argument: Relationship Skills 101

Vic, 1970

We faced off in the upstairs bedroom, sitting on a mattress on the floor in our rented house on Cayuga Lake. We’d been married less than a year. The afternoon light was low and the bedroom window was open a crack. The small stream next to the house gurgled toward the lake.

“What’s going on?” Vic asked after I gave him a day of the cold shoulder treatment I had learned from my mother.

“Nothing.”  Icicles dripped from my voice.

“Come on, E. What’s wrong?”


“Look at me, E.”  I averted my eyes, but felt him watching me. “OK, I’ll sit here until you talk to me,” he said with an exasperated sigh.

Cayuga Lake house

“Then I’ll go downstairs,” I said. I felt like a child.

“I’ll follow you,” he said. It was a plea, not a threat. “Come on, E. Tell me.”

I sat in gloomy silence. I didn’t want to admit how small his sin had been. I wanted him to go away and let me off the hook. He didn’t budge. Neither did I.

I didn’t know how to argue or disagree. My parents rarely fought, and when they did, it was private and cold. Mom had two power strategies: Let Dad have his way if she didn’t care much about the issue or, if she cared, freeze him into submission. He gave her what she wanted rather than endure the frost.

Neither set of grandparents fought either. My father’s mother, Grandma Ware could be petulant and moody, but Grandpa Ware yielded. My mother’s dad never got mad at Grandma Welling because she never disagreed with anything he suggested.

Inexperienced in conflict resolution, I married a fiery Italian who had been trained by his feisty mother in the art of argument. He preferred peaceful negotiation.

The night before, Vic had accepted an invitation from people he knew from graduate school, people I didn’t much like. I was mad he hadn’t asked me before saying yes, but rather than stating my case, I fumed and fanned the small issue into a flame of resentment. My anger was tinged with fear. I was behaving badly. Would he leave?

Realizing he planned to see this through, I accused him of making decisions without consulting me. He surprised me and didn’t get mad. He wanted to understand rather than win and accepted my criticism. My irritation melted as I wept.

It was a baby step toward learning to say harder things when they needed to be said. In time, we exposed vulnerabilities and irrationalities we didn’t trust with anyone else. We learned to trust each other, growl, and forgive.

That day on Cayuga Lake, after Vic heard me out, we walked along the lake shore. Ducks quacked, small waves slapped against the shale stones, and my chest melted in warm relief. We had tested our young marriage vessel and it hadn’t cracked or exploded. I could trust this man.


How do you negotiate disagreement in your relationships? For more stories about my early marriage, read My Hippie Wedding and Our First Home.

  1. I have always thought that exposing vulnerabilities was a good start to an open relationship. Jim and I always said what was on our minds and I think that brought us closer.

    • I agree, Anne. Exposing vulnerabilities and daring to reveal dissatisfaction even when it the exact issue was unclear or seemed petty. There was usually something off that wasn’t conscious, so if we followed the trail of our feelings, we found the source and cleared the air. Marriage or partnership was a path of self-discovery for both of us. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
      Warmly, Elaine

  2. Elaine, I wish the substance of the tiff you describe were all I had to fight about in my marriage. You don’t know from real argument material. Consider yourself lucky.

    • Dear Ruth,
      We were newlywed when this “tiff” happened. Just kids. The argument material became substantial in time, but we usually managed to get along rather than fight. Years of encounter groups and other psychological work taught us more skills for disagreement, although occasionally there was a blowout. Later there were challenging issues–how to live in one place with his job two hours away or how to handle his worldly success and my struggles to maintain my own work. When he got cancer, the major battles were against death and fatigue. Still I told him near the end, “You finally got 100% of my attention, what you always wanted.” There were issues and I write about them in my book. As far as I know, there are issues in every marriage. When I was 22, I feared that any small disagreement would blow us into bits, but our marriage was resilient and tough. I hope yours is, too. And I consider myself extremely lucky.
      Thanks for making me smile this morning,

  3. I wish I had learned these skills as early as you did, Elaine. It took couples counseling in my fifties before I began to get the knack for it!

    • Yes, we were lucky to figure this out. Later we soon got involved with 60’s style psychological work in California–psychodrama, encounter groups, free universities. It was a little wild, but helped us learn to navigate the rough edges that come up in any relationship. (One of us had a bad day and the tendency was to zap each other about it first, then feel sad second. Vic called it “the lightening rod effect.”) Thanks for reading and taking your precious time to comment.
      Warmly, Elaine

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