Michael E Roloff. Encyclopedia of Human Relationships. Editor: Harry T Reis & Susan Sprecher. Sage Publications, 2009.
Arguing (also called quarrelling, verbal conflict, and interpersonal conflict) is expressed disagreement. Because arguments can have negative consequences, some people try to avoid them; when arguing, they try to minimize the likelihood that their disagreement will escalate. Hence, relative to other types of conversations, arguments are infrequent, and argumentative episodes are often of very short duration. Arguing occurs among strangers, superiors and subordinates at work, colleagues, neighbors, roommates, friends, dating partners, and family members. Frequent interaction with another as well as increased interdependency stimulates arguing, and arguments typically are more frequent, prolonged, and intense with intimates than with nonintimates. This entry examines how arguing is conceptualized and measured, the causes and correlates of arguing, and the consequences associated with arguing.
Conceptualization and Measurement
Arguing is a form of interaction as well as a form of conflict and can be distinguished from other forms. Relative to nonargumentative interactions, people report that arguments are more likely to involve disagreement, criticism, sarcasm, and insults that are loudly expressed. Not surprisingly, individuals frequently use negative metaphors (e.g., being in a war) to describe their arguments. Conflict is the existence of incompatible activity, and expressed disagreement falls under that rubric. Although arguing is a form of conflict, not all conflicts become arguments. Some incompatible activity is not discussed, and there is no argument. In such cases, there can be mutual awareness of conflict in the absence of arguing (e.g., discussing the conflict topic is declared taboo), and conflict may be manifested in different forms than arguing (e.g., the silent treatment, denial of support).
Arguments are episodic (i.e., composed of a connected set of events). They are initiated when a person perceives a provoking action and challenges the provocateur who responds by resisting. Arguments are typically focused on a given issue (e.g., money), but they can expand to include others (e.g., “You are a spendthrift”) and may include a hidden agenda (e.g., “You don’t respect me because you never ask my opinion”). During an argument, individuals can pressure the other person to change, disclose feelings, generate solutions, repair the relationship, minimize the disagreement, and withdraw from the interaction. Some behaviors occur in sequences, such as demand and withdraw (i.e., one partner demands and the other withdraws), escalating reciprocity of negative affect and mutual complaining. Because arguments frequently end with no resolution, episodes may be repeated and become serial arguments. Between episodes, individuals often mull about what was said and what they will say in the next one. Over time, serial arguments can become scripted in that each partner plays a given role (e.g., initiator or target); partners can predict when an episode will occur and anticipate what each will say.
Researchers study both the general characteristics of arguing and the features of specific argumentative episodes; the measures vary with the focus of the research. When examining the general characteristics of arguing, respondents are typically asked to self-report (either on questionnaires or in diaries) the degree to which their everyday arguments can be characterized as frequent, stable, intense, predictable, constructive or destructive, emotional, or resolved. Such measures provide a summary of what individuals perceive that most of their arguments are like, but these measures may not provide a fine-tuned assessment of the behaviors that are perceived to be enacted within an argumentative episode. To gain insight into episodic behaviors, researchers rely upon self-reports about what occurred in a specific encounter (e.g., one that occurred on a given day or that occurred most recently). Respondents report the degree to which their argument focused on particular issues, how long the episode lasted, how long ago the episode occurred, the conditions that prompted the argument, who initiated the argument, the behaviors or behavioral sequences that their partners enacted, and the outcome of the episode.
Because self-reports can be inaccurate, researchers rely upon behavioral observations to assess arguments. When doing so, they often ask relational partners to reenact a prior argument, engage in a simulated argument, or discuss an upcoming issue that could lead to an argument. Interactions are taped, and the actions are categorized or rated by trained coders. In some cases, the partners are shown the tape of their interactions and asked to code the behavior or to describe what they were thinking at a given point. This approach allows research to compare an individual’s response with that of his or her partner and with trained coders. Although providing a rich source of data about argument, behavioral observations are labor intensive. Researchers must convince relational partners to participate in a taped argument, find appropriate contexts (e.g., a laboratory, the home) in which to observe the episode, choose an appropriate stimulus for the argument, select the appropriate verbal and nonverbal stimuli to code or rate, develop coding categories that are valid indicators, train coders to make reliable judgments, and control for a variety of factors that aversely influence the statistical analysis (e.g., skewed distributions, nonindependent observations).
Causes and Correlates
Individuals report that they argue about a variety of issues including money, social issues, personal habits, sex, communication, and power. Underlying these issues is the notion that arguing arises from violated expectations. Something about the state of the relationship and/or a partner is perceived to be at variance with appropriate standards (e.g., etiquette, morality, conventionality, role expectations, well-being, and consistency). However, individuals may perceive such violations and never confront a partner about them or, if confronted, may comply and thereby avoid an argument. Hence, certain conditions must be present to stimulate arguing. A variety of factors increase the willingness to argue, including (a) relational intimacy, (b) perceiving that another’s actions are disrespectful, (c) confidence that one knows how to argue, (d) the urgency of the situation, (e) having a legitimate right to argue, (f) enjoying arguing, (g) perceiving that arguing will enhance relational quality, and (h) concern for the partner’s well-being.
The manner in which one acts during an argument results from a number of factors. Some individuals have a conflict style or set of beliefs about conflict that predisposes them to argue in a particular way. Individuals who believe that disagreement is personally and relationally destructive avoid confrontations, while individuals who enjoy arguing confront others. Verbally aggressive individuals use competency and character attacks to influence others, while argumentative individuals rely on logic. The perceptions and emotions associated with an argument may also influence a person’s actions. The degree to which individuals blame their partners for a problem or are angry with them can stimulate destructive actions. When in an argument, individuals often influence each other’s actions. In many instances, individuals reciprocate each others behaviors (e.g., complaints lead to countercomplaining), but in other instances, complementary patterns are observed (e.g., complaints lead to apologies). Finally, the presence of observers can influence argumentative behaviors by signalling approval or disapproval of certain actions.
Skills associated with approaching conflict in a competent fashion include perspective taking, using polite and sensitive language, engaging in emotional control (e.g., impulse control, self-soothing), asking questions, being responsive to the partner’s statements, summarizing and paraphrasing, taking time-outs, and developing solutions. Skill enactment results from knowledge (i.e., understanding what one should do during an argument), outcome efficacy (i.e., believing the skills will be successful), and self-efficacy (i.e., feeling that one has mastered the skills).
The most obvious consequence of arguing is whether or not the issue was resolved. Although surprisingly little research has directly assessed resolution, arguments most frequently end in a standoff or with one or both parties withdrawing from the interaction. Apologies and compromises are less common outcomes. Furthermore, some arguments end with a pseudoagreement in which one party submits to the partner’s desires simply to stop the argument and therefore has little commitment to the agreement.
In part, the ability to resolve an argument stems from the manner in which the confrontation begins. In some cases, individuals confront their partners in a highly emotional way that creates emotional flooding followed by reciprocated emotion or withdrawal. Or individuals may begin the confrontation in a way that is perceived to be a face attack (e.g., a criticism or insult) that prompts partners to become defensive as they try to restore their image. In both cases, partners stand their ground or may even adopt increasing divergent positions as the argument progresses, a situation that makes resolution unlikely.
Arguing also has consequences for relationships. In general, the frequency of arguing is negatively related to relational satisfaction and positively related to the likelihood of relational dissolution. Indeed, the frequency of arguing about relatively minor issues is negatively related to relational satisfaction. Relational difficulties arising from arguing may stem from several processes. First, frequent arguing may give rise to negative actions such as insults and physical aggression. Second, frequent arguing may cause individuals to believe that a conflict is irresolvable and will remain a part of their relationship. Third, frequent arguing could have a negative impact on others who are related to the partners such as family and friends.
The point at which arguing becomes damaging to a relationship may vary. Some couples thrive because of their willingness to argue and their view of disagreements as a sign of vitality and relational commitment, whereas other couples find even infrequent arguing to be unpleasant and threatening. The key seems to be the beliefs partners hold about arguing as well as their ability to repair any damage resulting from their disagreements. If couples view arguing as positive, believe they are making progress toward resolution, avoid enacting destructive argumentative patterns (e.g., mutual attacks), and reinvest in their relationship after an argument, there may be less relational harm and possibly even relational enhancement. However, constructive conflict behaviors such as active listening and empathy do not always protect a relationship from damage. Indeed, the negative effect of destructive conflict behaviors is greater than the positive effect of constructive actions.
Arguing can also affect personal well-being. Some individuals are emotionally drained, depressed, and stressed after an argument. These outcomes can aversely influence their physical and psychological health as well as their ability to perform in other areas of their life (e.g., at work), and these effects can extend over several days after an argument. Such consequences are especially likely when arguments are frequent and are perceived to be irresolvable. However, not all individuals find arguing to be punitive. Argumentative individuals are very good at reasoning, enjoy arguments, seek out disagreements, and regret having missed the opportunity to argue with another. Moreover, some individuals engage in personal coping tactics that seem to alleviate the negative states often resulting from arguing.
Although arguing is not universally harmful, many distressed couples seek therapy to control excessive and destructive conflict. Couples therapists can utilize behavioral approaches that train individuals to reciprocate positive actions and to engage in problem-solving communication. This approach is sometimes combined with a cognitive component aimed at reducing negative attributions for relational problems and increasing perspective taking and/or therapies aimed at increasing acceptance of irresolvable issues. The aforementioned approaches have positive short-term impact on marital quality and may have longer term benefits for particular types of couples.