The Art of Argument - Advice from a Lawyer Married to Another Lawyer
Updated: Dec 17, 2019
My husband and I met in law school. We are both trained to argue and in our day jobs we argue all day long. As two lawyers in a marriage, we disagree a lot. Our friends probably think we bicker a bunch, but I think this is just how we talk to each other. Being trained in the art of argument, we are just not afraid to voice our opinions. Intellectual discourse is one of the main features of our marriage. I would be terribly bored if my partner would not engage in disagreements. And my husband also needs something who keeps him in check, otherwise he will just make up facts to back up his bad habits: "Studies show that children of men who watch football all day are more self-reliant and display healthy ambition." Yeah right!
Of course there are disadvantages too. We never let each other get away with anything. It can be exhausting. We regularly ask each other for sources. "What is the basis for your belief that this is not a good school district? Is this just something you heard or do you have actual data to back this up?"
We often ask endless follow-up questions like we would in cross-examination. And let's not forget about all the leading questions.
We do this in public too which is awkward for our friends. I think they tolerate it in exchange for free legal advice.
The legal field is an entire industry based on argument and conflict, and there are a lot of rules both parties have to respect during these conflicts. My husband and I know these rules really well. There are some advantages to both spouses being trained in the art of argument, and I want to share these tips with you:
1. Make Objections
When we argue, we don't let each other deviate from the issue on the table. This prevents the argument from getting completely out of hand. Everyone knows that once the door is open, there is no limit to what can be brought out of the darkness. It's not helpful. If the issue is that I forgot to pay the preschool and now we're charged additional fees, I won't respond with, "Yes but what about your road rage, I think you have a problem with your temper." He would make a relevance objection, and I would have to let it go. Other objections we make are, "Asked and answered," and "Badgering." We also expect the other person to answer our questions. If I ask him, "Did you remember to pay the electricity bill?" and he answers with, "I paid the water bill and the gas bill." I would say, "Move to strike as not responsive. It's a yes or no question. Was it paid or not paid?"
2. Set a Trial Date and Prepare a Brief
When I'm upset, I bullet point some of my arguments. I then ask my husband for a good time to discuss the issue. It's usually after Matteo goes to sleep at night. I want him to have the attention span to hear me. Preparing my argument in advance helps me from talking in circles and getting off topic. It also helps resolve something fully and completely. Sometimes I text my basis for being upset with him so he has time to prepare his rebuttal. When both sides have some time to think about the issue, it's more likely to get resolved quicker. I also recommend setting "trial dates" to resolve conflicts. A lot of arguments escalate because someone doesn't have the bandwidth to be present and listen with attention.
3. Res Judicata
There's a principle in law called "Res Judicata." It means that the matter has been a final resolution on an issue and may not be re-litigated. Literally it means "the thing has been decided." We don't bring up things that have been resolved. This only works if the issue has been fully and finally resolved. One side has to say, "I forgive you and I want to move on," otherwise the matter is still pending and subject to appeal. That doesn't mean that something can't come up later again and it may still hurt, but we're not going over the facts and the details and the "who did what" - instead we'll say, "This thing happened today and it reminded me of that difficult time we argued over ... I don't want to bring it up again, but it made me feel a little sad. Can I have a hug?"
4. Remember that there is no Judge.
There is one main difference between arguing in court and arguing in marriage. There is no Judge to call it. In the past, we argued like we were presenting our case in front of a third party. "I am right because ... you are wrong because..." "That's not true, I am the one who is right because ... you are the one who is wrong because ..." This may work in a court of law, as the Judge will hear both sides and then proclaim one side the winner. One party is right, the other side is wrong. That doesn't happen in a marriage. Because for one side to be "right," the other side has to assume all accountability for the conflict. Believe me, when you accuse someone of wrongdoing, they get defensive. That's natural. I've never filed a case alleging illegal conduct with the other side conceding and saying, "Yes I totally did that thing in exactly the way you interpreted it. I am 100% in fault." It doesn't happen.
We would do our presentations of evidence for hours until we we're both tired and couldn't remember why we started. Then one of us would give in and say something like, "Fine, you're right, I don't care anymore." And the other person would feel vindicated. Yet there was no resolution, just two worn out spouses.
When I was pregnant we went to Sedona for a baby moon. We did a psychic reading, and the first thing the psychic said was, "You two fight too much. When you both fight to win, you both lose." I thought about this a lot, and I realized that the unit of the marriage is more important than the two individuals. If I fight to be right, I may get an ego boost if he gives in, but it's at the expense of my husband. That's not a victory. There is only one marriage that is hurting and two people contributing to its breakdown.
Now, we really, really try not to fight to win. We still address each other's harmful behavior, but we focus on the effects of the conduct (damages), and not the actual conduct (liability): "You may not have intended it this way, but when you did ... I felt ..." instead of "You did ... and now I am mad and upset and it's all your fault." We really try to get to the underlying feeling instead of the accusation. So instead of, "You're so rude. You're always on your phone. Why do you ignore me when I'm talking to you?" we say, "I feel like I'm invisible when you are on your phone while I'm trying to explain something. I understand you may be working right now, but I have to say something important. Can I have your full attention for five minutes?" Just like a legal case, it's important to focus on the effect (damages) instead of the conduct (liability). If you're a juror in a car crash case, the evidence on the injuries (damages) is a lot more compelling to listen to than the evidence of whether the driver disregarded the green light or whether the green light malfunctioned (liability).
5. Take Breaks
We fail at playing nice all all the time. Playing nice takes a lot of mental fortitude and like everyone, we're tired and busy. We often argue over nothing just because we're both stressed and exhausted. When this happens, we try to have the awareness that what we really need is rest. So we say exactly that, "I feel like we're fighting over nothing. We're both really tired. We're both trying our best. I'm going to take a shower." Even if we're fighting over important issues, we take breaks. When we're in court, so much of the insight comes during breaks. It gives us a chance to consider the other side's perspective and see where they're coming from. When my husband and I both feel overwhelmed by the argument, one of us will at one point go for a drive. We keep angry texting of course, but you'll see that it's a lot harder to be mean in writing. Usually, after some time, I start really missing him. Once that grace comes in, a resolution is a lot more feasible.
6. Make Sure Your Kids See the Resolution
When I was pregnant, I made my husband promise we would never fight in front of our kid. It was really, really important to me. We failed. It turns out that it's almost impossible not to fight in front of your kid at one point. After all, you're together so many hours and when everyone is tired it's really hard to keep your cool. So I'm not going to tell you not to fight in front of the kids. Instead, try to model the art of argument in front of your kids. Don't shout. Don't be mean. Don't insult a parent in front of a child. But disagree civilly and let them see what a reasonable conflict between two adults looks like. If you don't fight in front of kids, they will never learn how to argue fairly. And it's a skill they need to learn like any other. If they don't learn it, and then are confronted in their own marriages with conflicts, they may be shocked by extreme emotions and either respond with extreme emotions or shut down. Most importantly, when the conflict is over, talk to your kids about it, let them ask questions, let them feel safe and heard. And show that you all love each other through physical affection and words of comfort. Tell them that you had an argument with the other parent but that it is over, and that even when you're arguing, you still love each other.
7. Get Help from a Neutral Mediator
Almost all of the legal cases end in a compromise. Very few cases go to trial. At one point or another, both sides have heard each other's perspective ad nauseam. The evidence is clear and both sides usually know who has a higher chances of winning at trial. Both sides are tired from the conflict and want to move on. The attorneys will then try to resolve the case, and usually work through a professional mediator to come to a resolution. There's a saying in the dispute resolution circles that "a good compromise ends with both sides equally dissatisfied." The same is true in marriage. If you feel like you're having the same argument over and over again and you're tired of it, go seek help from a professional so you can come to a compromise. We did it and it was like marriage bootcamp. In only a few sessions we worked through a major conflict in our marriage. The resolution of this issue was that we both had to give in equally.
I hope these rules were helpful. It may sound clinical and unnatural, but I can promise you that we haven't had a screaming match in years. We still bicker, but unlike in the past, the arguments no longer end in tears. We disagree, we respect the rules, we respect the sanctity of the marriage, and then we're done.
Just like being a lawyer, it takes time to master the art of argument in marriage. Keep practicing until it becomes the new normal. Before you know it, you'll be a skilled trial master and arguments will become less and less disruptive. Good luck!