We have an argument with our significant other. Like most arguments, it goes nowhere. Feelings are hurt. The next day, we hear those ominous words. “We need to talk.” They’re possibly the most inauspicious that can be uttered in a relationship. We’ve heard them before. Multiple times. The results are always the same. We have another argument.
It’s a perfect example of the truth of Einstein’s observation about doing the same thing and expecting different results. It’s insane. Yet people keep doing it. Why is that?
The most common explanation is the assumption that talking is always beneficial. It can help us clear things up. It’s an unexamined assumption. The evidence is against it.
There are two other possibilities. One, the more benevolent, is that the person who wants to talk knows of no other way to deal with the situation. The other, less charitable but not uncommon, is that the person, perhaps unconsciously and not necessarily malevolently in most cases, does not really want reconciliation. The person wants to litigate the issue all over again and prove how he or she was right and we wrong. When we hear “We need to talk,” that’s what we hear. They want another crack at winning the argument. So, we’re skeptical, maybe even a bit cynical. “We” don’t need to talk, we think to ourselves, you do.
Of course, the shoe may be on our foot. The "you" may be us.
If it is, we’re not availing ourselves of the program. For, under the circumstances, the last thing we need is to talk. What we need is to take a real good look at ourselves, check our motives, and consider the part we played in the argument. That’s the way of AA, the way of self-examination. It’s what Step 10 proposes we do.
In the Big Book, that Step is introduced right after the Promises. In one of these, we’re assured, “We will intuitively know how to handle situations that used to baffle us” (p. 84). We’re further assured that, like the other promises, this one too will materialize, but only if—and this cannot be stressed enough—"we work for” it.
“This thought brings us to Step Ten,” starts the next paragraph. That’s where we work for it.
Arguing and then arguing about arguing is certainly baffling. But that’s what inevitably happens when we have an argument and try to deal with it by talking about what happened. It’s not hard to see why. When I say “we need to talk” I really do mean that I need to talk, and the reason I need to talk is that I’m still upset. I’m hurting. In that frame of mind, I can only add fuel to the fire. It’s a truism that hurting people hurt. If I’m still licking my wounds, I’m in no condition to have a rational, dispassionate, and constructive conversation. I’m motivated by negative emotion.
Rather than talk, Step 10 proposes that I act. I make a personal inventory of myself. I take the focus off the other person and place it on me. “It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us,” declares the 12&12 (S10, p. 90). So I look for what that may be. I “watch for selfishness, dishonesty, resentment, and fear,” and whatever other defects of character and emotion may be creating the disturbance I’m experiencing, suggests the Big Book (p. 84). “When these crop up, we ask God at once to remove them,” having first become entirely ready to surrender them, for he won’t if we don’t. “We discuss them with someone immediately and make amends quickly if we have harmed” the other person.
That’s the AA way and the way of all the fellowships based on the 12 Steps. It’s simple and effective. Not easy. It requires humility, honesty, forgiveness, courage, and the other spiritual antidotes to whatever may be poisoning our heart. Free of those toxins, we are then ready to approach the other person. Not to “talk,” but to make restitution.
“I was wrong,” is always a good opening line. The other person will be glad to hear that. “I want to make amends.” Then we frankly acknowledge where we were wrong and sincerely apologize. Their wrongs don’t even enter our mind. We are there to clean our side of the street (Big Book, p. 87). Their side is their side.
There is no guarantee this approach will bring closure to the situation, but at least we won’t have done anything to prolong or aggravate it. A lot of after-argument arguments are not about the original situation, but about the way we reacted when we went over it again with the other person. A lot of arguments also, even seemingly trivial ones, are not really about the particular issue at hand. They have an undercurrent of resentment which may have built up over a very long period time over other, often unrelated matters. There won’t be any closure to these until the other person is willing to go through the process that Step 10 lays out. If the person is not in a 12-Step program, that may never happen. It may not even if he or she is. A lot of people just don't work the Steps.
After we make amends, the Big Book goes on to suggest, “we resolutely turn our thoughts to someone we can help.” We may not have to look very far. That could very well be the person we’ve just made the amends to. Or maybe not. We can only do our part. Regardless, “Love and tolerance of others is our code,” we are reminded. Though perhaps not a “suffering alcoholic,” the other person is suffering. He or she does need help. But we may not be the ones best equipped to provide it.
If we are in long-term recovery and we have been continuously working the Steps and growing “along spiritual lines” (p. 60), it should be rare for us to start an argument. For by this time “we have ceased fighting anything or anyone” (p. 84). If the other person does and we get “tangled up,” our first job is to step back and make a spot-check inventory (12&12, S10, p. 89) so that we can exercise the necessary “restraint of tongue” (p. 91) and limit the damage. “We learned that if we were seriously disturbed, our first need was to quiet that disturbance, regardless of who or what we thought caused it (ibid., S4, p. 47). We don’t lock horns. We listen and observe. “Let me reflect on what you’re saying” or some such conciliatory response may defuse the situation and buy both of us some sorely needed time.
Later, or at day’s end, when we have collected ourselves, we review what happened and make the fuller type of self-examination the Big Book describes (p. 86), followed by the amends indicated.
When we have done that, and the other person has responded in kind or at least accepted our amends, we may have laid the groundwork for a talk of the heart-to-heart variety. There are no shortcuts, “no softer, easier way” (p. 58). Only more insanity.
[Image: Third edition of the Big Book, published in 1976. The fourth edition was published in 2001. A fifth edition was proposed at AA's General Service Conference in 2021.]