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SALT LAKE CITY — I had a client ask me about the anatomy of the argument they keep having over and over throughout their marriage. They have noticed that other couples say the same thing: they always argue over the same thing or around the same basic issue. So, I thought that maybe I would explain a simple way to take apart that argument and see what is really happening.
The first thing you need to understand is that fear is in play. I believe there are two fears we all battle with every day, and have done so since we were small children. They are the fear of failure (that I might not be good enough) and the fear of loss (that I am not safe). We all experience both of these, but each person has one that is more dominant.
Find the fear
When thinking about your most common argument, it’s important to figure out which fear is in play for each of you. Ask the following questions to determine which fear is dominant for you, and then for your partner.
1. Fear of failure questions
- Do you have a lot of insecurity?
- Can you be a people pleaser?
- Do you sometimes struggle to speak your truth and instead let yourself be treated like a doormat?
- Do you worry too much about what others think?
- Do you get really hurt or offended when someone accuses you of acting wrong or behaving badly?
- Do you just really want everyone to be happy so you can relax and not feel like a failure?
If you answered yes to most of these questions, you are probably fear-of-failure dominant.
2. Fear of loss questions
- Do you have lots of opinions and are not shy about sharing them?
- Do you speak your truth well and sometimes offend people?
- Do you need a certain amount of control of situations to really feel safe?
- Are you opinionated and picky or particular about how things should be done?
- Do you easily notice what is wrong in any situation?
- Are you sensitive about feeling taken from or taken advantage of?
- Do you get bothered when your money is wasted or people don’t do what they should be doing?
If you answered yes to most of these questions you might be fear-of-loss dominant.
Study the fight
The reason it is important to know a person’s core fear is that once you understand where their fear is based, you also know the key trigger that knocks them out of balance and brings out their bad behavior. Most of your arguments will be the same basic fear getting triggered.
People who are fear-of-failure dominant get offended when they feel judged, criticized, rejected, unloved, abandoned or insulted.
People who are fear-of-loss dominant get offended when they feel taken from, mistreated, disregarded, disrespected or like they are losing something.
Think back on your most common argument or disagreement you have with a person. Which one of the above offenses happened first? Someone started this argument when they felt one of those things. Can you see which fear was in play first?
When their first fear was triggered, the person reacted and behaved in a way that triggered the other person’s fear. Can you see which fear that was?
Whenever you react from fear, the behavior that results is almost always selfish and focused solely on protecting yourself. This behavior makes the other person feel unsafe. When you are so focused on protecting yourself, you are not going to be thinking about protecting the other person. It is important that you can see behavior that the first person displayed, or what they said that got the second person triggered, too.
What did the first person’s behavior make the second person feel? Did they feel ...
- Judged, criticized, rejected, unloved, abandoned or insulted
- Taken from, mistreated, disregarded, disrespected or like they are losing something
When both parties have their core fear triggered, each person involved in the argument is selfishly focused on protecting his or herself and his or her interests. In this state, no one is capable of showing up with love, understanding or validation for the other person. They both feel too unsafe to talk about the real issues. Suddenly, the whole argument has become all about seeing yourself as wronged and defending yourself.
See the solution
It is critical to understand the anatomy of these arguments so you can see the solution. At the end of the day, you both just want to feel safe, loved, respected, admired and wanted by your partner. This argument is really about the fact that you don’t feel that way.
So, the answer to ending this argument for good is to learn how to make your partner feel safe, loved, respected, admired and wanted when they first get triggered.
What if you could pause right at the beginning of the argument, when the first trigger happens, and ask yourself:
- What is my partner really afraid of here?
- What does my partner need to calm, validate or reassure them and bring back a feeling of safety?
- How could I give my partner what they need instead of getting defensive and focusing on protecting myself?
- What would it look like if I tried to listen to understand my partner (not reply) and recognized this issue is about their fears about themselves more than it is about me?
- What could I do in this moment to make my partner feel safe, loved, respected, admired and wanted?
Mary and John
Let me give you an example of how this works:
Mary and her husband John live on a tight budget and are very careful in stretching their paycheck to the end of the month. John opens the fridge and finds a bag of salad that has gone bad and has to be thrown out. He turns to Mary and in anger says "That is just great! Why didn’t you use this before it sat in the fridge and rotted? What’s the matter with you?" Mary yells back, "Why do you have to be such a jerk? You are the worst husband ever." The argument escalates from there.
Let’s take this one apart: This argument started when John got triggered by fear of loss. He was already worried about not having enough money this month, and seeing food go bad triggered that fear. But notice that he doesn’t see it as a money fear problem; he inaccurately sees it as Mary’s problem. So, he aimed his bad reaction right at Mary, insulting and verbally attacking her.
This, of course, triggered Mary’s fear of failure, as John was accusing her of being careless and wasteful. But instead of recognizing what John’s fear was really about (the money fear), she goes on the defense and attacks him back. Now, both John and Mary feel unsafe with each other and instead of addressing the actual fear issue, they have made the argument about each other.
The truth is that most bad behavior is a cry for help, love or reassurance because the person is scared of something; it’s always more about the person’s fears about themselves than it is about you.
People who are grouchy and rude and attack you for small mistakes, or right out of the blue, are usually battling a huge fear that they aren’t good enough; however, they aren't conscious of that, so they project their self-hate onto you, which is easier for them than facing it.
Many people who feel mistreated, taken from, or are easily offended are really angry at life for disappointing them. They can’t punish life for their losses, so they project the problem onto everyone around them. If you can start stepping back and looking at each argument through this filter, you will find they are easier to understand and resolve than you think.
You can do this.
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