Communication: where bad arguments come from

We argue badly and regularly principally because we lack an education in how to teach others who we are. Beneath the surface of almost every argument lies a forlorn attempt by two people to get the other to see, acknowledge, and respond to their emotional reality and sense of justice. Beyond the invective is a longing that our partner should witness, understand, and endorse some crucial element of our own experience. 

A bad argument is a failed endeavor to communicate, which perversely renders the underlying message we seek to convey ever less visible. It is our very desperation that undermines us and ushers in the unreasonableness that prevents whatever point we lay claim to from making its way across. We argue in an ugly way because, in our times of distress, we lose access to all better methods of explaining our fears, frustrated hopes, needs, concerns, excitements, and convictions. And we do this principally because we are so scared that we may have ruined our lives by being in a relationship with someone who cannot fathom the inner movements of our souls. We would do things so much better if only we cared a little less.

We don’t, therefore, end up in bitter arguments because we are fundamentally brutish or resolutely demented, but because we are at once so invested and yet so incapable. It is the untutored force of our wish to communicate that impedes our steady ability to do so.

And yet, though arguments may be destructive, avoiding points of conflict isn’t straightforwardly the answer either. An argument is about something, so its content needs eventually to be faced up to if a relationship is to survive. The priority is not so much to skirt points of contention as to learn to handle them in less counterproductively vindictive and more gently strategic ways.

Some of the reason why we argue so much and so repetitively is that we aren’t guided to spot the similarities that run through our arguments; we do not have to hand an easy typology of squabbles that could be to domestic conflict what an encyclopedia of birds is to an ornithologist.

Though fights can from the outside look generic, with similar displays of agitation and aggression, we should come to recognize the very distinct kinds of arguments in operation. By examining them in turn, we may gradually assemble an understanding of some of the obstacles we face, and greet moments of dissent with a little less surprise and rather more tolerance and humorous recognition. We will be reminded once more that love is a skill, not an emotion.

Edited excerpt from The School of Life: An Emotional Education, introduced by Alain de Botton, The School of Life Press. © The School of Life, publication September 2019.