Arguments and Pavlov’s Dogs

You find yourself in the same old argument – again. It never seems to end. After the argument you might ask yourself, “How did that happen? Why does it keep happening endlessly?”

Take a moment and think of the setting in which this argument tends to take place. For some couples the arguments occur in the bedroom, as the night is supposedly winding down for a restful sleep; for others, it”s at the dinner table. Parents and children have their ‘favorite’ times, too, frequently after a child returns home from a school day. Essentially, our episodes of conflict become ritualized to include a regular time and place.

This repetition has the unfortunate side effect of creating associative learning, otherwise known as classical conditioning. Ivan Pavlov realized that when he paired two things together he could create a new learning condition. First he presented a dog with meat powder and the dog salivated. Then he presented the sound of a bell shortly before presenting the meat powder. What happened next? You guessed it, the dog salivated. By pairing the sound of a bell with meat powder he could get a dog to salivate because the dog learned that when a bell sounded food was sure to follow.

What does this have to do with people arguing? Everything. When we have arguments with the same person in the same place (and frequently at the same time) we come to associate that person and place with an argument. Much like the dogs in Pavlov’s experiments we learn to respond.

Here is a simple five step plan to create effective solutions. First, designate a specific time and a place for discussions, preferably one that is on neutral ground that doesn’t already contain negative association – at a restaurant, for example, in which civil conduct is expected. Second, declare specific times and locations “off-limits” for topics that are sure to generate conflict. For example, it’s rarely a sound idea to discuss the in-laws or financial concerns while in bed and attempting to get to sleep. The associations we have with a bed should be connected to only a few possibilities: relaxation, sleep, and sex. Third, set brief time limits on topics that have high arguing potential; after a few minutes of discussion we become fatigued, lose some of our ability to be rational, and are more likely to fall down the same hole we’ve been in time and time again. Fourth, allow yourself and your partner an escape clause. If the level of anger and emotion gets too high, allow either partner the graceful exit of a timeout to de-escalate the situation. Rarely has an argument ever been solved while yelling. Fifth, do something different! Stand on your head, wear a red foam ball on your nose… hardly matters what the difference is to the style of discussion, but the main emphasis is that by interrupting repetitive patterns we can allow for the possibility of new and healthier ones to emerge.

The once endless arguments really can be resolved – with no salivation required.