Do One Good Thing for Your Health: Value Your Relationships

Try not to be contentious and quarrelsome, says neuropsychologist and relationship counselor Rick Hanson, Ph.D. Discussions that turn into quarrels and heated arguments are avoidable if we learn to value the pleasure of relationship over the pleasure of being correct.

It’s important to stick up for oneself, and it’s essential to develop one’s own font of wisdom, understanding, and personal viewpoint. It’s worthwhile to discuss points of view, but when the discussion gets hot and you feel irritation growing, the bigger picture can be lost, and the relationship with the other person can be harmed, Dr. Hanson said.

I had a rat terrier once. When that dog sank its teeth into a foe—be it a stuffed animal, old sock, or random stick—no bribe nor amount of shaking would make it unclench its jaw before the foe was demolished. Arguments can bring out the rat terrier in any of us—what Dr. Hanson calls stickiness, or the need to persist until we win.

But it is precisely this “stickiness” and all-out pursuit of winning that hurts feelings and causes lasting damage to relationships. Dr. Hanson suggests that we pay more attention to the worth of the relationship and less attention to winning.

A disposition towards argument can harm not only outward relationships but also inward peace. Arguments happen inside the mind, too, like when we have a story going on in our thoughts about a person, politician, lifestyle, or religious belief with which we disagree. And who hasn’t had a few moments of internal (or external) argument with a computer, telephone, sticky drawer, or locked door?

These moments are bound to happen, says Dr. Hanson, but a steady diet of contentious quarrels is bad for our health—both physically and mentally. Arguments activate the fight or flight response, letting loose unwanted chemicals and stress hormones in the body, which can lead to stress-induced disease. Arguments destroy the fine-feeling level of relationship, making it difficult to resume trust and grow in togetherness.

Here are Dr. Hanson’s recommendations for avoiding quarrelsomeness:

  1. Be mindful. Notice what quarreling feels like in the mind and body, and what it feels like to want to make your point at the cost of peace. 

  2. Notice what quarreling does to your relationships. Ask yourself if the resulting lack of relatedness is worthwhile. Ask yourself what your relationships would be like if you didn’t quarrel.

  3. Step back. Slow down. Don’t take the bait. Stay calm and contained.

  4. Realize that you don’t have to answer or win. “His or her words can pass on by like a gust of air swirling some leaves along its way.” Your silence doesn’t mean the other person won.  And what does it matter if they think they won, anyway?  

  5. If you find yourself in a quarrel, try silence. Back out politely. 

  6. Explore the sense of being at peace with the world.

Don’t Quarrel, Rick Hanson, PhD, in neuropsychology, blog Just One Thing suggests a simple practice each week to bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart.

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