Humans 101

The Real Reason We Get Into Arguments

What I learned after a stupid meltdown

Photo: Yuri_Arcurs/Getty Images

Before I share what I learned about why we get into arguments, I want to tell you a story. I’m not proud of my behavior; in fact, it’s downright embarrassing to let you know what I did. But it was a wake-up call that stirred things up for the better. Believe me, I don’t always have such a short fuse.

I was watching my 12-year-old son play in a tennis tournament. The kids were playing for rankings, which over the next few years would determine college tennis scholarship offers. You could say there was money on the table.

A cellphone went off near me. Phones were supposed to be on silent. I looked over and saw that the phone belonged to Alan, the father of one of the kids. He answered the phone and had a brief conversation. I shot him a dirty look.

It rang again. Now I was really annoyed. I said, “Hey, you know the rules. Turn your phone off.”

Alan retorted, “I need to take these calls.”

“Put it on silent then.”

“It’s no big deal. What do you think this is—Wimbledon or something?”

“It doesn’t matter. Turn your phone off.”

“But I’m a doctor.”

A doctor? Are you fucking kidding me? You just poured gas on the fire. You want to do battle? Let’s go.

“I don’t give a fuck who you are. It’s disturbing to the kids. Be respectful.”

“Nobody speaks to me that way.”

“Really? Well, too fucking bad.”

By this time, someone intervened and told us both to cool off. Alan puttered around behind me, talking to himself. I got up and walked outside for a few minutes and returned. No one said another word. My son finished his match, and we left.

A month later, I was at another tournament. I saw Alan’s wife, and she smiled and waved at me. I was surprised. She’s not upset? I walked over to say hello.

“Did Alan tell you about the incident at the last tournament?”

“No. Why?” she asked.

“We had a little problem.” I told her the story. She didn’t seem surprised.

“I’m so sorry. He’s not a doctor. He’s an out-of-work stockbroker, and he’s, well, a bit depressed and on medication. He’s quite hard to deal with these days.”

“Well, tell him I apologize for going off.”

“He probably deserved it, but I’ll tell him.”

It made me wonder how I would have handled things if I had known he wasn’t doing well. I hoped I would have said, “Excuse me, could you please turn off your phone?”

“But I’m a doctor.”

“I see. Could you please put it on vibrate and take calls elsewhere so you don’t disturb the kids?”

Maybe he still would have stamped his feet. If I didn’t curse at him, at least I would have known I behaved respectfully.

“Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not, and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.” —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

It wasn’t long before Alan and I met up at another tournament. We nodded politely at each other. No words were spoken — his son was playing my son. We stood near each other for the next few hours. No cellphones rang, and his son went on to beat mine. I congratulated him on the victory. A few years later, both boys went on to play college tennis at major universities. Everybody was happy.

It’s painful to look back and see my younger self losing my temper over a ringing cellphone. Here’s what I didn’t realize at the time: I was carrying my wounds, too.

My wife and I were going through a divorce. While it was mostly amicable, my dream of a nuclear family living together was blowing up. I was guilt-stricken, depressed, and financially worried. I kept this mainly to myself, carrying on as best I could, assuming I could handle everything by just marching on like it didn’t exist.

If I could turn back time and give myself some advice, this is what I would say:

  • Realize you are going through a monumental life transition.
  • Pay attention to your emotional state of mind.
  • Take care of yourself. Slow down and give yourself time to heal.
  • Lower your expectations. You’re not superman. The suffering will affect you.
  • Find someone to talk to.

Too often, when I have gone through personal crises, I’ve paid more attention to what’s going on around me and not enough to what’s going on in me. My focus was on my work, my kids, my relationships. Assuming my psyche would magically heal on its own without giving it any attention was foolish.

It’s so easy to get lost in ourselves, in our world, consumed by the pressures of our lives. For some of us, we bottle it up, not even aware we’re doing it. And then there’s a trigger. The anger and self-hatred come pouring out all over someone else.

Funny how two grown men at their kids’ tennis tournament can stir up each other’s trauma in such destructive ways. Are we somehow drawn to each other’s wounds, silently hoping for the healing we don’t even realize we need?

When Alan’s cellphone rang at the tournament that day, I never considered what he might be going through, what wounds were haunting him. But it turns out we both were reeling from wounds that were invisible — mostly to others but sometimes to ourselves. We look past these wounds or through them, not wanting to lose the connection to the sense of self we’ve created. We’ve worked hard to be who we think we are, and recognizing a reality that deviates from that is even harder work.

Our inner sense of self and our face to the world are our closest friends, allies, and protectors. They have been with us through our ups and downs. We’ve come to rely on our inner voice for guidance and help. Sometimes it comforts us. Sometimes it tortures us with guilt and shame. But it’s all we know, so we hold on tight.

I’ve been hard on myself throughout my life. I’ve pushed and fought hard to accomplish things and get through the hard times. My high-achieving, perfectionistic tendencies covered up deep insecurities and wounds. But I’ve come to appreciate that life is a process of recognizing the stuff beneath the surface — finding it, holding it, and making peace with it.

Facing the wounded self is threatening. It means opening the door to the part of us that is slightly broken, fragile, and vulnerable. The good news is that when we open the door, we’re not alone. There’s a tripwire attached to the door that sends an alert, and the help we need comes. We begin to realize the path to wholeness is paved with accepting and loving ourselves, all parts — our gifts and power, our darkness and weakness. We become more kind and loving to ourselves and more tolerant and forgiving of others when we continue down the path.

For me, opening and walking through that door led me to my true self — a small, frightened kid who found his way into adulthood and did the best he could. He’s made many mistakes and failed at many things, but he’s learning that acceptance of others begins with accepting himself.

We’re all a bit broken in some way or another. Wouldn’t the world be a much better place if we accepted this and recognized that everyone is working through their wounds, trying to find their way home? I bet we’d show each other a little more understanding, forgiveness, and compassion.

10 years as a monk, 49 years meditating, 30 years in the shark-infested waters of corporate America |

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