Trying to “fight fair” and “be reasonable” when you’re arguing with your partner is kind of like trying to recite the alphabet backwards after you’ve fallen out of an airplane. All that adrenaline, fear, and inertia makes it impossible to keep your mind on anything other than the danger you feel. Marriage counselor Dr. Susan Johnson says trying to teach couples a list of rules to follow during conflict sets them up for failure. Instead, she counsels couples to limit the damage they do during an argument, and to lovingly patch it up afterward. Below you will find three popular myths about how to handle marriage fights accompanied by more realistic approaches.
1. “Stay Calm”
What makes it a fight is that you are not calm. And there is no reason you should be. Marital conflict takes place on two planes. On one level you are fighting about the source of the argument (undone dishes, broken agreement). On another level you are fighting about what this disappointment means for your relationship. Something as minor as your spouse not cleaning the garage, like they said they would, can open a fissure for insecurity about how much you can trust their promises.
This is part of what makes it so difficult to stay calm during a fight with your spouse. You are not just fighting about their failure to do the dishes. You are trying to communicate how they have damaged your trust. “If I can’t count on you for something this simple, what about when something truly demanding comes along?”
2. “Be Specific and Reasonable”
“When the fear center of my brain is glowing red, my cortex, the seat of deliberate reasoning, is most often not on line.” (Johnson) Better advice would be to not say something you will regret. When you have been hurt, it is tempting to get revenge, or to end the fight with a carpet bomb. Don’t. Johnson likens the desperate act of making a threat or ultimatum to trying to rearrange your living room by tossing a grenade in there. It changes the situation, and maybe even gives you the advantage, but is it the most productive way to handle the problem? “As one of my clients told me, ‘When she uses the D word, divorce I mean, it’s like I have a pen knife and she has a nuclear weapon. I just freeze up. I can’t talk at all.’” (Johnson)
3. “Take a Time Out”
On the surface, a fight can look like a furious attempt to push your partner away. But, as a fight is really an attempt to convey your insecurities to your partner, the last thing you would want them to do is walk away from you. “I think in many of us this is just going to trigger higher levels of alarm and resentment. Aren’t we all just a little threatened by our loved one being able to turn and walk away, as if we didn’t matter at all? In my practice, the only people who can use ‘time outs’ are those who have very mild fights and tons of love between them – that is, those who don’t really need it.” (Johnson)
This is not to say you should let a fight get out of control. But don’t try to end it by shutting out your partner. If you think things are getting out of hand, say so. Tell your spouse you value their feelings, and you want to hear what they have to say, but how you are both communicating has become destructive rather than productive.
What to do After a Marriage Fight
Fights happen. You are not the same person. It would be abnormal if you did not disagree from time to time. The key is not to avoid fights, but rather to limit the damage, and repair it afterward. When you talk about your fight, Johnson recommends focusing on your feelings instead of your partner’s behavior. What upset you and caused the fight? How did you feel during it? Why did you feel that way? “You can both assume, if it was a serious fight, that you scared each other. Our research shows that you can heal hurts and create a love that lasts by showing your partner that you care about their feelings and opening the door to what I call a Hold Me Tight conversation.” (Johnson)
In Paul’s letters to the New Testament churches, we see him constant remind them to share their burdens with one another, and to forgive those who had wronged them. Marriage requires the same. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Eph. 4:32 NIV) During arguments you will say and do hurtful things out of fear and anger. Focusing on kindness and compassion will help you keep these injuries to a minimum. It will also help you be mindful of what your spouse is actually saying during a fight.
Christian Counseling for Conflict
You cannot avoid conflict in marriage. Johnson even says it is unhealthy to try to. She likens it to two people trying to dance, but are too nervous about stepping on each other’s toes to put their feet anywhere. However, if you are concerned about the intensity of your marriage fights, considered making an appointment with a Christian marriage counselor. They can provide a safe space to discuss your problems, and help you identify the fears that drive your emotional outbursts.
“Marriage-fights-unavoidable” Flickr user Noella Choi
“Deal-with-conflict-in-marriage” Flickr user ChloeFynn