All couples argue. The question is, are you simply a fiery emotional pair? Think about those movie scenes where she yells at him, he shouts back that he won’t put up with this anymore, and suddenly they’re kissing passionately. If this is you, disagreement may be your idea of foreplay. But be careful; sticks and stones break bones, but sometimes words really can scar souls and break marriages.
Here’s my diagnosis: Your fights are healthy if they are infrequent, brief and—despite raised voices and heated words—end up in a resolution where both of you feel loved and heard…and then maybe even have great make-up sex. Your fights are unhealthy if they often involve name-calling or threats to end the relationship, or if they are not resolved and leave one of you feeling frustrated or wronged. In essence, does the fight bring you closer, or push you apart?
Most couples speak rudely to each other at least some of the time. And in my experience, even couples that have a great rapport in public can have a startlingly high incidence of verbal abuse behind closed doors. John Gottman’s marrriage research shows that your relationship is likely to end in divorce if you frequently resort to personal criticism, contempt, or withdrawing and shutting down. But fortunately, anger management and communication skills can be learned. If your arguments are frequent and destructive to the relationship don’t make excuses; make an appointment with a professional and get some help.
Disagreements are inevitable, but couples must learn how to argue well, or at least do no lasting harm. Let’s face it, tantrums were cute when you were 3, but not at 43. So here are two rules to ensure a fair fight.
Adopt the mantra that your partner is not wrong, just different. In my private practice, I teach couples that the root cause of their fighting is an egotistical attachment to their own world view. I hold up the clock that sits on my end table, turn the face toward the woman and ask her to describe it. “It’s a gold, octagonal object with Roman numerals.” Then I flip the clock around and ask her partner to describe it. “It’s a black, plastic object with a kickstand.” I then ask, “Which one of you is right?” Usually the couple laughs, realize they are seeing two different sides to the same thing and agree that, indeed, all of their arguments stem from the insistence that their own perspective is the Right, the Best, the Only one.
Just like hysterical toddlers, so-called grown-ups need a time out when they can’t control themselves. The fight-or-flight biochemistry that floods us when we get angry or fearful literally makes us temporarily insane. We must short-circuit this in order to prevent the carnage to our relationship, calm down, and try again later. In the history of marriage, no couple ever solved a problem by arguing for hours after midnight. So stop! When a storm is brewing, call a time out. Then head to separate rooms for exactly 30 minutes. This is far harder than it sounds. Usually one person wants to chase the other and “deal with this right now,” while the other wants to hide for days and hope that it all goes away. The time out gives the Pursuer the guarantee that things will be dealt with in 30 minutes and the Distancer time to calm down and regroup.
When you come back together, ask your partner, “Okay, what do you see from your side of the clock?” By acknowledging that your partner has a different perspective on the same situation, you move from confrontation to understanding and collaboration. Marriage will not always be easy, but you signed on for better or for worse. Learn these skills, make things better-—and make love, not war. Then get some sleep.