Writer and broadcaster

“I get tongue tied during arguments.” Published in The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

I am a young woman who has a problem arguing with loved ones – specifically, with boyfriends/partners. In social and professional contexts, I hope I don’t flatter myself in saying that friends and colleagues would describe me as sociable, articulate, quick-witted, chatty and friendly. Nor am I a nervous public speaker: I regularly have to give talks in front of large audiences, and am often specifically praised for my speaking skills. In a professional or “dinner party” context, I have no problem in presenting my views, conflicting or otherwise.

So far, so good. Many promising relationships have begun in just such settings. However, when it comes to relationship conflict of an emotional nature – any sort of argument with a boyfriend in private, no matter how trivial – I become completely tongue-tied. I may have the most reasonable counterargument in the world running through my head in perfectly formed paragraphs, but I feel like there is almost a physical impediment preventing me from speaking (which cannot possibly be the case).

I feel that if I say a single word, I will burst into uncontrollable tears; indeed, I often do. I am perfectly capable of remaining in complete silence until the poor man in question is reduced to wailing, “What is it? Say something!” or storming out.

I cannot begin to describe how frustrating it is for me, and I am the first to admit how frustrating it must be for the man in question. I have no idea where the tongue-tied side of me comes from and I am sure most of my friends would be amazed if they could see it. I also suffer (to a much lesser degree) from a similar problem when I argue with my parents – it’s just that we really don’t argue that much!

T, via email

When I consulted psychotherapist Lynne Gabriel (bacp.co.uk) on your behalf, we both seized on the last line of your letter. It’s what GPs and psychotherapists call a “door knob disclosure” – what people say, just as they’re leaving, that gets to the heart of the problem. I would bet money that your pattern of behaviour has to do with your upbringing. Maybe you learned not to have an opposing view to a family member (not necessarily parents, also look at sibling relationships) because the other person couldn’t handle it or was overly brittle.

“Somewhere along the line you have learned to create a false self for certain situations, to subjugate yourself,” says Gabriel.

It’s common to not be able to bring one’s outside, grown-up self to the family table and to end up over-emotional and quite unable to string a coherent sentence together, in family situations where there is disagreement or an opposing view. We all have patterns of behaviour for different people and some very grown-up people who rule the workplace are submissive with family members.

So what to do? Gabriel recommends, in the first instance, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy by Rebecca Crane. She doesn’t think your problem will be hard to fix and if you wanted to try a bit of therapy then she suggests mindfulness-based therapy (itsgoodtotalk.org.uk). Somewhere you could “talk through your present scenario (‘I can’t argue with loved ones’) to your preferred scenario (‘I want to be able to say how I feel in any given situation’ or whatever you choose) and then you could work out how to achieve that.”

But what to do in the meantime?

I wondered if it might work to have a “holding” phrase, something you could say at times of argument if you feel you can’t say what you want. Gabriel suggested saying something like “I haven’t got an answer now but I will” or “I can’t talk about it now, but I will later.” Decide on a phrase and stick to it. Practise saying it. You may even want to write it down, and if you can’t say it, show it to your boyfriend (or family member) in the heat of the argument. “There is the expectation that the other person will respect that,” says Gabriel.

Until you work out why you behave like this in intimate arguing situations, buying time may help. I would absolutely then revisit the discussion at a time of calm – but as soon as possible after the argument – and put your view across. I’m hoping that if you can separate out the heat of the argument, and what you want to say then you will be able to say how you feel – just later on.

Hopefully, you will realise that you can express a different point of view to a boyfriend/loved one without the world falling in. Subsequently, you will be able to narrow the time lapsed between saying “I can’t talk now” and actually putting your point of view across until you are finally saying how you feel as you argue. And what a glorious day that will be.


First published in The Guardian Family section on 19th July 2013.