A Quick Technique to Stop Arguing Right Now

Arguments take many forms. Sometimes an argument can feel big to one partner and small to the other. I’ve found it helpful for couples to recognize who is more emotionally invested in, or feels more strongly about, an issue or outcome, and I developed a simple tool that helps them figure out the relative importance to each person. This can prevent long drawn out discussions and stop future arguments.

I like to ask couples to rate the level of emotional investment in their outcome on a scale from 1 to 10: 1 equals barely any investment, and 10 is a very strong investment.

Here is a hypothetical example: Saturday night is date night for Alana and Boris. Alana feels strongly about seeing a certain movie that she missed seeing the previous week. Boris wants to watch a live sports game. As they discuss what to do, they each start getting frustrated, since the other won’t budge from their choice. Before the discussion becomes an argument, they ask each other: “On a scale from one to ten, how emotionally invested are you in your choice?” Alana says, “I’m a seven out of ten for the movie because we didn’t get to see this movie on our last date night.” Boris says, “I’m a five out of ten because I just went to a game last weekend with a friend.”

The agreement is that the person who is more invested gets their choice. In this scenario, that would be Alana because she is more invested in the movie than Boris is in his game.

Of course, this technique only works if both partners are truthful and honest about their self-evaluation. Ideally, part of being in a partnership is committing to honesty. However, the technique tends to even out. When partners are flexible when their emotional investment is low, that encourages flexibility in the other when their emotional investment is low. When partners are honest, it’s rare that one partner is always more invested and so gets their choice almost every time.

If both partners are exactly equal in emotional investment, they might simply flip a coin to determine the final choice. That’s a simple way to assure fairness and equality.

Using the emotional investment scale works on more complicated issues as well. For example, Sean and Rick were a loving couple in their fifties who couldn’t agree on household tasks. Sean had a pretty large wardrobe and did laundry once a month for the two of them. Rick was more of a once-a-week laundry guy. Rick was getting frustrated because he wanted to do the laundry every week. I asked the couple to rate their emotional investment.

Rick reported he was a 9. He claimed he had “a bit of OCD” and didn’t like the smell of dirty clothes. He couldn’t understand how someone wouldn’t want clean, fresh clothes.

Sean was more nonchalant about the issue, but quantifying the relative importance of the issue helped them resolve it. He said, “You know, I am probably a five. Clearly, I don’t love doing laundry or need to do it very often. But I recognize it’s more difficult for Rick with the smell factor than it is for me. So he gets this one. We will do it once a week.”

Using this simple scale is a way to be relatively objective with yourself about your preferences. Then, when comparing it to your partner’s investment, it’s often clear what the outcome should be. Use the “Who is More Emotionally Invested?” technique proactively to prevent an argument from escalating.

Kelli Miller

Relationship Expert

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