Arguing in circles

Spats that go round and round can undermine our relationships without ever getting anything solved

Special to The TribuneApril 16, 2013 


Circular arguments are those relational spats that go round and round without ever being resolved. For instance, a woman might say to her husband, “You’re always late.” He responds, “You nag me too much.” She says back, “Then be ready next time.” His retort: “I was this way when you met me.”

Circular arguments can arise over any number of subjects. But they always begin with a perceived attack. Recipients feel the need to defend their behavior and respond with aggression of their own. Soon, the duo is locked in a self-protective struggle that often escalates into a no-holds-barred battle. The relationship is battered and bloodied, while the real issue remains ignored.

Sometimes, the fault lies with the accusers. They’re worked up from the get-go and come on way too strong. The recipients feel mentally wounded and strike back to inflict damage of their own.

At other times, the recipients overreact. Accusers may do their best to be respectful and solicitous. Still, hearers lash back or make counter-accusations. The argument kicks into high gear.

Whatever the cause, the behavior is always disruptive. Couples are reluctant to discuss any issues. They fear inciting World War III. Meanwhile, problems continue to fester, and resentment becomes the norm.

Fortunately, circular arguments can be broken. They needn’t drag your relationship down. The first step is to stop them in their tracks. Arguments require two people to continue. If you disengage from the conversation, the nonproductive behavior immediately stops.

Next, make a neutral observation. Tell your partner, “This habit is frustrating to me. It seems we lock horns without getting anywhere. I know we can do better than this.”

Elicit the other’s opinions. Ask open-ended questions, such as, “How could I say that differently?” Or, “What would make you feel less attacked?” Your desire to improve your marriage speaks volumes about your commitment and draws you together as a team.

Don’t cave in to your partner’s bullying. Tell your mate, “I’d really like to address this with you. But I won’t do it if you keep yelling at me. Once you’ve calmed down, I’ll be happy to talk.” Then excuse yourself to leave the room.

Keep your discussions focused and short. It’s easy to become so longwinded that the real purpose — solving a problem — is displaced by irritation and boredom. Stay on track. Avoid ranting, rambling or over-talking.

Be willing to take the lead. Your partner may or may not be keen on your strategies. You may be met with resistance or a glazed look that says, “I couldn’t care less.” Don’t let that discourage you. And don’t make it a cause for further conflict. You can still alter the outcome by monitoring what you say and do.

Finally, you may have to accept things as they are. Some partners are so resistant that they’re completely unable to change. If that’s your case, so be it. It’s probably not worth getting a divorce.


• Stay calm. Nothing gets solved when you’re steaming. You’ll be met with resistance every step of the way. Back off until your anger has abated. Then keep it under control.

• Express your view in a respectful tone. Never yell or use derogatory language. Instead, state your concern clearly and concisely.

• Use “I” statements. “You” statements proclaim “You did this” or “You always say that.” They’re inherently accusatory and tend to elicit resistance. Instead, start phrases with “I feel this” or “I’m concerned about ...” Your tone will invite the cooperation you seek.

• Don’t get sidetracked. Stick with one topic. Yes, there are other issues to discuss. Save them for another time.

• Honor others’ viewpoints. You may disagree. Still, each of you is entitled to your opinions.

• Express willingness to find a workable solution. Statements such as, “I really want this to work. I love you so much,” instantly defuse hostility and strengthen your bonds.

• Be willing to back away. Some situations are never going to change. Let them go. Focus on your partner’s strengths. There’s probably plenty of good in your relationship.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit .

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