We’re told that arguing in relationships is good, healthy even. A 2011 study fleshed out what we already suspected, which is that some fighting is good, zero fighting is bad. But not all arguments are created equal. It’s important to be mindful of one thing: An argument is a resolution of conflict through dialogue, not a tactical outsmarting or out-talking of an opponent into submission. Treating it as a zero-sum game can cause resentment in the long run, once your backlog of unresolved issues starts to overflow. Talking in circles for hours, agreeing to things you don’t believe, words getting twisted around…these are all symptoms of poorly or unfairly framed arguments. It’s not always easy to diagnose them in the heat of the moment, but it’s helpful to have the tools at the ready.
With that in mind, I decided to bring together two seemingly disparate worlds — cold logic and heated argument — in order to create a cheat sheet, if you will, of six common shortcuts people take in arguments. To explain their possible effects, I enlisted the help of Dr. Samantha Rodman, relationship therapist.
1. The classic veiled threat
This sounds something like: “If you don’t agree with me, something bad will happen.” This can be minor or can come in the form of a threat to end the relationship. If you’re ever at the point where your arguments consistently boil down to threats and ultimatums, it’s a sign that your communication styles may be incompatible.
Dr. Rodman agreed that constant breakup threats are unproductive and unhealthy. “A partner who is being threatened will eventually distance themselves from the threatening partner,” Dr. Rodman says. “In a worst case scenario, the threat will completely lose its effect. At that point, the threatening partner will find themselves going through with a separation that they don’t even 100% want, just to show they are ‘serious.’ When people threaten divorce, they are really begging the partner to pay attention to their needs.”
2. The red herring
A red herring is a type of ad hominem attack, so called because it’s an attack “to the man” instead of against the argument. Let’s say you find yourself arguing with your partner about something he or she did to hurt your feelings and your partner responds with, “Well, last week, when you did x, that hurt my feelings.” This response is a red herring because it conveniently distracts from the subject at hand — an issue you had with your partner — and brings things back to you and a separate wrongdoing.
“In general, it is important to stick to the topic at hand versus circling back to every other argument during conflict. If there is one specific empathic rupture that is causing the fights, then it is useful to go to a therapist to address that specific issue and see if it can be forgiven and resolved,” says Dr. Rodman. It’s unfair to be kept on the hook for previous bad behavior; your partner should either let it go or bring it up independently and in a timely manner (that is, don’t piggyback on a conversation you’ve started) in an effort to resolve an issue for good.
3. The straw man
This is a nifty little technique used to discredit an argument by distorting it — taking it outside of its logical boundaries — so that it becomes ridiculous. It sounds something like, “Oh, you think I’m flirting with [x person]? What’s next? I’m not allowed to speak or look at anyone I may possibly find attractive?” Don’t be fooled into trying to defend this substitute argument; just call it as you see it. If you think that communication is a pervasive issue for you as a couple, or you see these fallacies coming up in your discussions time and again, Dr. Rodman suggests couples counseling.
4. The false dichotomy
This fallacy often sounds like: “Yeah, sure, you do nothing wrong. You’re an angel!” It falsely paints two options — often diametrically opposing ones — as the only alternatives. By eliminating one option (being an angel), the argument is falsely vindicated: You are the worst human alive. A more sinister version comes up in arguments in this form: Either someone’s completely to blame for everything or completely blameless, i.e. Since you did x thing last week, I can’t be completely to blame for everything. So I’m completely blameless, and this is totally your fault.
If you’re ever caught in the middle of these kinds of extremes, Dr. Rodman suggests some quick tricks to improve your communication: remain objective when describing what the other person did to hurt you; avoid getting bogged down in value judgments or finger-pointing; tell your partner exactly what words or behavior hurt you and what to avoid in the future. Reflect on your own behavior and try to understand why a particular action may have upset you or your partner.
5. The appeal to the stone
This sounds something like, “You’re [expletive] crazy.” It’s a dismissal of what you say as either “crazy” or implausible — without really bothering to explain why. This is possibly the most damaging argument, and can easily tip into gaslighting. It stops all productive discourse in favor of flinging around accusations and insults. While there may not be an easy way to respond to being called “crazy,” it’s important to step away from an argument that’s become illogical. Listen to the warning signs that tell you when something, whether a relationship or a conversation, isn’t healthy.
6. The appeal to authority
One of the most commonly-cited pieces of relationship advice is to keep your friends and loved ones out of your relationship. The appeal to authority often sounds like this: “My mom thinks” or “my therapist says…” If your mom, dad’s, friends’ or therapist’s advice is a trump card for every single argument you have, you’re doing your relationship and partner a disservice. Dr. Rodman instead suggests using what you learn in therapy to help explain the possible roots of your own dysfunctional behavior, not your partner’s. “If you say, ‘My therapist thinks you avoid topics because…’ your partner is likely to deny this and go on the defensive due to feeling attacked,” says Dr. Rodman. And while “my mom thinks I’m right,” may work in kindergarten, when you’re an adult, you must earn your own conclusions.