Navigating the brave new world of the modern argument.
Being a man is not what it used to be. The work and home life of men everywhere is changing dramatically. Most men no longer spend their days on the factory floor. Brute strength is not so central to what men do or how they define themselves. Women are moving into men’s work. Men are moving into women’s work. Machines are making the tireless power of men’s muscles secondary.
More importantly, men are being asked to live life in new ways. In the process, we are changing the very nature of the American family. It is no longer the rule that we disappear Monday through Friday, dispensing stern warnings from behind the sports page until we vanish again when Monday returns. We’ve left the easy chair. We’re down on the floor with our children. We’re hauling their kindergarten backpacks. We’re watching as they work the angles on the playground. And some of us are raising our children at home, full time, every single day.
As we move, even in small ways, into the intimate space of our children’s daily lives, men are being tempered and changed. We don’t pound our fist on the dinner table and command fearful silence. Taking off our belt to whip our kids is a generation old bogyman story, done to us, but not by us. We no longer default to forcing our will on the world. There are consequences. There are costs to taking that path. We have acquired internal self-regulating checks and balances, put there by the little hands we hold in ours. Put there by our own better angels.
So, how do we men stand up for what we believe? How do we hold our own when angry and frustrated arguments erupt? How do we fight?
Conflicts inside and outside our families will always take place; conflicts with work colleagues, relatives, ex-spouses, and lovers. And although physical violence against men and women in the home is still epidemic, it is no longer considered remotely acceptable as a means of expression. Its absolutely against the law. Most men and women would never consider it an option, under any circumstances.
But as men are slowly learning to stop leveraging angry displays and physical violence in conflicts, the pantheon of other conflict strategies, some of which are traditionally more gendered toward women, remain in full play.
If generations of women past learned tools like withdrawal to address the imbalance of power between men and women, are our daughters still being taught to do so even as men’s strategies for fighting are being forced to shift? Do men, who are shifting by degrees away from anger and violence, still freely use other displays of male power, making the reduction of violence only a partial step away from male privilege? The situation is complex. There are no simple questions here.
Yet many people use a kind of gender math to determine what conflict tools are fair and what tools are not. The context in which this math is formulated can be limited to the personal or can take into context the lives of men and women half a world away or generations ago. We need to all be thoughtful about what we consider justifiable when we fight, especially across gender lines or race. Are addressing current issues or are we making our partners pay for the sins of our fathers and mothers, ex-lovers, abusers? Are we making our partners pay for abuse dished out years ago or continents away? It requires a high degree of self reflection. The central question when we fight is am I being fair to the person we are fighting with or are we seeking to punish them?
Meanwhile, some women, who are growing in economic power and developing their physicality and strength in clear and public ways, are moving into very male ways of projecting power. There is a collision taking place at the leading edge of change where male and female modes for engaging in conflict are blurring and where methods and strategies for engaging conflict are becoming more homogenous.
How do we as men come to terms with this brave new world of conflict? How do we fight now? How can we insure we don’t get caught up in unhealthy modes of conflict? Well, there is one central point you can be sure of. Trading the traditionally male gendered way of punishing others for more gender neutral methods is no solution. Belittling, silencing, shaming or undercutting someone else, young or old, male or female is damaging to all parties. We can all find a better path. Here are some suggestions.
Five Ways to Fight Like a (Modern) Man
Rule #1: Completely Lose Your Temper and Lose the Fight
These days, threatening displays of male temper are the same as capitulation. Once you aggressively lose your temper you might as well toss in the towel because getting crazy pissed off is a recipe for getting silenced. When a man exhibits aggressive levels of anger, the original case he is trying to make is lost and the focus will shift to a critique of his rage. (This is also the case online, by the way. So all you Ben Affleck haters need to calm down.)
Accuse a man of being “an angry person” and he has lost any claim to the moral high ground, even if the argument he is making is valid. And when your opponent is not playing fair, don’t fall prey to being goaded into the seductive expression of rage. Men must learn to express their anger without becoming aggressive. And not just men. Although women can display aggressive anger with far less cultural stigmas about abuse immediately kicking in, cultural awareness about women physically abusing men is increasing. No individual gets away scott free from an aggressive display of anger. So, don’t do it. Anger is fine, but not if it becomes threatening.
Rule #2: Fight Fair, Save Your Soul
During a fight, we are often tempted to enter a highly competitive debate mode, shutting down our ability to hear the other and ramping up our bag of attorney’s tricks to misdirect, obfuscate, and confuse the issues at hand. Who takes out the trash should be about who takes out the trash, not who said something mean at a party two years ago and made the next door neighbor’s boyfriend cry proving that they are, in fact, unable to form relationships. Stay on the subject and go meta only in order to do so. “What does this have to do with the trash?” “Can we please stay on the issue of the trash?” And my favorite. “This is not really going to help us resolve the issue of the trash.” People all have weak spots and vulnerabilities. In fact, they have big fat targets painted right on their souls. When you shift gears and go after your opponent’s deeply personal vulnerabilities you’re going chicken-shit nuclear. You reduce yourself to the most base of persons. Your case goes out the window. You win nothing.
Rule #3: Don’t Martyr Up
Fights are by their nature erratic, confusing and often overheated events. That being said, once you’re in one, you have two choices. You can speed-reenact every ugly interaction you’ve ever been witness to, or you can try to explore the issue at hand and maybe help resolve it. If your true goal is to explore what is making people reactive you must keep the dirty tricks to a minimum. Go ahead, be fussy for a little bit and then try and build a bridge once you and the person you are in an argument with have let off some steam. But to do any of this, you have to stay in the game. Storming out yelling, “Oh, forget it. I’ll take out the trash until the damn apocalypse!!!” is martyr talk and is just another form of lashing out. You are not powerless and you are not a victim. You are a person with a valid point of view. Lashing out at yourself to spite your partner is still lashing out. See rule #1.
Rule #4: Don’t Beat Yourself Up About Being in a Fight
We do not live in a perfect world. We all fall prey to frustration and the urge to argue. Fights happen. Give yourself and others the space to get in a fight once in a while. It’s not the end of the world. It’s a fight. Express that you are frustrated and upset and that the subject of the disagreement is driving you crazy. Maybe even admit you are acting a bit overheated. Self reflect in the moment. Talk about your capacity being limited at the moment. “On a different day this wouldn’t be so challenging for me, but today…” By talking in a self reflective way, you will have vented some strong emotions and shared your issue without resorting to attacking the other person. Meanwhile, forgive yourself and the other person for being in a fight. Don’t’ let any one tell you that fighting is always wrong. It is not. Its human. Don’t make it a marker for a failed relationship, poor office skills or irrevocably bad parenting. How you conduct yourself during a fight and how you deal with it after the fact are what counts. For a start, come back later and try, “I’m sorry we fought.” (Note: Sentence structure here is very important. “I’m sorry you made us get in a fight” is not helpful.)
Rule #5: Know When to Walk Away
The sweetest people in the world have days when they just don’t have the capacity to control their frustration. People who love you and have your best interests in mind will sometimes fight with you. But learn to know when you are fighting with someone who is honestly trying to wound you. Some people never learned how to fight fair. They employ none of the restraint outlined above. For them, fighting is a dysfunctional blood sport. They are savage and poisonous and they are never going to hear you. Those are the people you must learn to disengage from. Walking away from people who never learned restraint is the single most important skill for any of us to learn. Because poisonous people will entice to you keep battling with them. But know this, if you find yourself in savage, senseless arguments over and over you are staring into an abyss that can swallow your life whole. Your job is to walk away. And in some cases that means, tossing your cell phone, packing a suitcase and crossing a state line as soon as possible.
New York City Family and Couple’s therapist Dr. Saliha Bava has spent twenty years working with couples as a therapist and coach. She has this refreshing take on fighting. (You can learn more about her work at her website.):
How we fight is not a problem, but a challenge. Fighting is a possibility for creating something. At times we fight because we are on our quest to create space or a voice for ourselves; to be seen or heard; to have a sense of justice; to stand for what we believe (at times called the truth). The question is not just how to fight but a more powerful question is “what am I fighting to create?” Fights are moments of creation (people often remember their fights). How would things shift in your life if you were to focus not on the fight but rather on what are you seeking to create when you fight?
Another important question I often ask my clients is, “do you ever come back later and talk about how you fight?” Talking about how we fight is the single most powerful way to shift to something more generative and creative. It can help us avoid destructive patterns. Couples often fight about their fights, but they rarely talk about how they fight. Talking about how we can fight is a powerful tool for making positive change.
Couples often go meta when they are fighting, leaving the subject of the conflict behind and switching to accusations and finger pointing about the other person’s behavior. So we have the ability to go meta, but we need to focus that capacity on observing how we are fighting in the moment, constantly asking ourselves is it destructive or generative?
We all fight. For both men and women, fights can teach us how to employ restraint and to vent frustration without slipping into being cruel. We can come to understand that fights define issues that are not being addressed adequately, help clarify boundaries and remind us of how we don’t want things to be. Fights can help us see the truth.
But as human beings, the central thing we need to learn is how to fight in ways that create not destroy.
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