Occasionally we hear of these people who say “Oh my spouse and I never fight!” And this may be so. For those who’ve married their twin and never have any conflicts whatsoever, we salute you and the butterflies and rainbows that alight on your bed-stand. For the rest of us, it might be helpful to understand that conflict is in fact healthy.
Disagreements are natural between spouses and have been part of the human story since the dawn of time. There is no reason to avoid disagreements so long as they can be managed in a healthy way. One of the big killers in relationships is unmet or disagreed-upon expectations. And expectations are hard to live up to when they go unexpressed. Communication is essential to let your spouse know what is important to you and what you’re hoping for. It’s unfair to expect your loved ones to read your mind as much as you think they “should.” When they can, that’s wonderful; intuition is a gift. But this should never be an expectation that is taken for granted. The art of discussing things in a calm way and letting the other know where you feel let down and what you’re hoping for is critical for deepening your relationship.
Sometimes people think it is better to keep the peace; simply bite your tongue and let things go. Certainly there is a time and place for letting things go and for sacrificing a bit of our own will to please the other. This surrender is a beautiful part of the recipe for a long-lasting, happy marriage. But when the pattern develops that problems get swept under the rug— it can turn into a giant heaping dust monster that comes out later. There are two warning signs to especially watch out for in this habit of “keeping the peace.” One is if one spouse slowly feels themselves or the other to be ‘erased.’ By this I mean that they’ve allowed the other to dominate with their preferences, politics, opinions and expectations so much that they seem to lose their own autonomy. They no longer feel like an individual person, but just one half of the other. The other thing to be mindful of in keeping the peace is the presence of fear. If one partner doesn’t speak up because they are afraid of upsetting the other, or they feel as if they are walking on eggshells around their spouse, this is a red flag and should be addressed as soon as possible in the context of a safe, trusting environment.
Fighting can be a road to peace. There isn’t a reason to scream at your loved one or to name-call… but respectful argumentation is an important part of keeping the issues small and non-threatening. It is relationship maintenance to keep under-the-rug-clean. While it’s pretty easy to Google up some “Rules for Fighting” in a marriage, I would just add these important tips as well.
- Express how you are interpreting things to allow for a correction. Very often couples are simply misinterpreting the other but instead of blaming, just offer how you are reading the situation. E.g. “When you’re silent when I vent about my co-worker, I’m interpreting this as you not caring. Is that accurate?” Compare that to “You never even listen to me! You think I’m not even worth your time!” Asking things from a position of ‘not-knowingness’ is much more mature and respectful than just proclaiming what the other person thinks or feels.
- Use “I…” statements in a much higher proportion than “You…” statements. This is usually part of most lists you’ll see but it’s good to develop why. The point isn’t just to state things like “I feel mad when you don’t stick to our budget” but to point out ways you have contributed to the problem and what you can do to fix it: “I am frustrated that we can’t seem to stick to our budget. Maybe I didn’t think it all the way through when it was designed. How can I make adjustments to the plan that will work for you?”
- It’s actually okay to go to bed upset! This is one of the biggest myths passed on to new couples. Sometimes one or both spouses is too tired or overwhelmed to continue having a meaningful, respectful discussion. There’s no need to gut through it. Simply make a commitment to the other that you’ll both return to the discussion after some sleep and breakfast in the morning. Having space to rest and process can sometimes produce a cleared head and softened feelings the next day.
Happy marriages take a good amount of work! But the more you are able to establish some ground rules on how to disagree, the smoother sailing things will be for everyone.
Written by: Elizabeth Peck, a Clinical Mental Health Counseling Candidate at the University of the Cumberlands and a support assistant to Pax Family Counseling.