- Exaggeration is toxic in arguments because it is inaccurate, insulting, and disruptive to problem-solving.
- Partners can think more constructively about each other's style of expressing emotions in terms of a spectrum instead of binaries.
- Constructive arguing enables couples to combine their styles and viewpoints into solutions to problems.
When people are in conflict, and they get angry, their perceptions and descriptions of each other become more and more extreme. The first exaggerations might be minor, but if the conflict continues and escalates, overstatements usually become more and more severe.
This process of reciprocal exaggeration destroys any possibility of constructive problem solving and often results in angry explosions. Exaggeration is toxic in arguments. We’ve got to come back to accuracy.
Reciprocal exaggeration occurs on many scales, from the micro—couples and families—to the macro—political parties and factions. This post will focus on couples in intimate relationships, but when we get to politics in future posts, you will see that the same principles apply.
How to tell if it’s happening
There are telltale signs which indicate an argument is falling into exaggeration. It's all about the words we use. One giveaway is using words like “always,” “never,” “everything,” and “nothing” to describe the other person’s behavior. Words like these are rarely accurate (I caught myself before writing “never”) because human behavior is generally too complicated and variable for something to always or never be the case.
Exaggeration is also indicated by descriptions of the other person’s behavior as so extreme that no reasonable person would act that way. Phrases like “has a fit,” “freaks out,” and “melts down” describe out-of-control, pathological behavior. Such behaviors exist, but they are rare and probably not occurring in the arguments you have with your spouse or partner. Usually, the behaviors in question are more accurately described as “became upset,” “yelled,” or “cried,” behaviors that are not pathological.
Why it’s so toxic
Exaggeration poisons the process of argument because it leads to emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that disrupt collaborative problem-solving. There are two main reasons: Overstatements are inaccurate, and they are usually insulting—a terrible combination.
Exaggerations are tricky to deal with because they are not quite lies—they contain an element of truth. However, overstating and distorting an element of truth results in a comment that is basically inaccurate.
For example, someone who looked up information relevant to an argument might be met with, “Oh, so now you’re an expert on this?” Someone who expressed hurt might hear, “Stop acting like a martyr.” The question is whether the person was genuinely claiming to be an “expert” or a “martyr.” Usually, the answer is no.
Cognitively, exaggeration gums up the process of argument because the debate loses connection with reality, gets taken over by distortions, and the real issues get lost. The partners are no longer debating each other’s actual behaviors or opinions—they are arguing about distorted, extreme versions that don’t really apply to the other person.
Exaggerations are usually insulting because they satirize, caricature, and mock people’s way of doing things. Because exaggeration can make any behavior sound dysfunctional, it proves nothing. People who want to be close can be put down by calling them clingy, and people who enjoy solitude can be disparaged by calling them socially isolated. People who plan carefully can be satirized as obsessive, and those who make quick decisions can be caricatured as impulsive.
Exaggeration does not refute the validity of anyone’s point or the value of a way of behaving. It is just a rhetorical trick.
Dialing down overstatements
Exaggeration is a quantitative problem: It has an element of truth, but it is overblown. To come back to accuracy, it helps to have a cognitive tool with which to think and talk about matters of degree. The familiar 10-point scale is perfect for this purpose.
On a scale from 1 to 10, the midpoint is 5.5. Scale-points 1-2 and 9-10 represent opposite extremes, and scale-points 3-4 and 7-8 are styles: distinctive but not extreme. One of the most common and destructive forms of exaggeration occurs when partners describe each other's styles as dysfunctional extremes.
For example, let’s consider a couple comprised of two normal people who have different styles of expressing emotion, styles we can conceptualize on a spectrum like this:
Expressionless Understated Expressive Hysterical
Robotic Reserved Intense Freaking out
Here’s what exaggeration could do to their argument. (The numbers in parentheses indicate where the statements fit on the scale.)
Mr. Reserved: Hey, take it easy, you’re screaming (9) at me.
Ms. Expressive: I am not screaming; I’m raising my voice (7). People talk louder when they’re upset. What’s so great about talking like an emotionless robot (1)?
Mr. Reserved: Just because I don’t get hysterical (10) doesn’t mean I talk like a robot.
If both partners tried to be fair and accurate, this part of their argument could have gone like this:
Mr. Reserved: Hey, if you brought down your intensity level, I’d be much more comfortable discussing this with you.
Ms. Expressive: I’ll try, but you know I express myself intensely, so don’t think I’m furious when I’m not.
Mr. Reserved: Deal.
We don’t have to claim our partners are 10s to express concern about their being 7s. In fact, this will backfire because then they will argue that they are not 10s, and they will be right.
So, for example, don’t say, “This room looks like a pigsty!”—a 10—unless that’s literally true. Say, “This room is messier than I want my home to be”—a 7. You might still have an argument, but it will be a constructive one.
Bridging the gaps
When couples think in spectrums rather than binaries, they see that the issues underlying their disagreements generally have two legitimate sides and are not simply matters of right versus wrong (Shapiro, 2020a; 2020b). (Stipulation: Some relationship problems, like abuse or deceit, are matters of right and wrong, but this post is about more ordinary conflicts.)
Ten-point scales counteract black-and-white thinking by showing that quantitative differences are just that—matters of degree, not principle.
Differences of principle make people mad. Differences of degree make people think, talk, and negotiate.
Now it becomes possible to work things out. The search is for the right balance between two priorities, not a battle to the death between those priorities.
Couples can use the spectrum idea to develop compromises by going through a sequence of five steps:
1. Identify the spectrum on which the disagreement is located.
2. Each person says where they believe they are on the continuum.
3. Each person describes the value they see on their side of the spectrum.
4. Each person describes the value they see on the other side of the spectrum.
5. Work out compromises by combining elements from both sides.
My wife has a good line for moving this process along: “Do I not have a point here?” The answer to this question can only be yes. My next step is to summarize her point. Of course, she does the same for me.
Unless we mate with our clones, long-term relationships require change. When partners reconsider each other’s styles, they sometimes come to a conclusion along the lines of, “There’s something to that.” Discussing differences in a fair, accurate way enables couples to combine their strengths and create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.