When it comes to marital battles, my partner and I have had some doozies — the kind that end with me sobbing on the phone with my girlfriend while he cops cool disdain and robotically surfs sports sites. We even came up with sassy sobriquets based on our preferred patterns of warfare. He called me Mount Vesuvius and I referred to him as the Polar Ice Cap.
That was then. We have since learned the art of the fight. Note, I did not say that we have learned not to fight. Wishing for a conflict-free marriage is like wishing for calorie-free chocolate. It’s not going to happen. (And even if it did, it would be flavourless.) People argue. That’s a fact of life. It’s how we argue that matters.
In fact, American researcher John Gottman can predict the long-term viability of a marriage with 96 percent accuracy simply by observing the way two people fight. After studying thousands of couples in his marriage lab, the doctor of love realized he could separate the “masters from the disasters” by the degree to which they exhibited the “four horsemen of the apocalypse.” And what were the four harbingers of marital doom? Criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.
So, if I’ve convinced you that fighting the good fight is perhaps the greatest gift you can give your partnership, let’s get to work. Here are some suggestions:
Stop winning! Most of us have been programmed to “win.” The scorecard of our lives is a tally of victories and defeats. But when it comes to disagreements with a spouse you are not “in it to win it.” If you insist on claiming the upper hand you may win the battle, but you risk losing the war. Being right isn’t as important as being understood. Your new mantra is: Come to an agreement, not win a disagreement.
Stay focused on yourself. “I” statements (“I feel rejected,” or “I feel hurt”) tend to be less accusatory and more self-revealing than those finger-wagging “you” messages. So, instead of, “You constantly ignore me at parties,” try, “I feel really alone and rejected when you don’t spend time with me at parties.” Here’s the beauty of those magical “I” messages: first, they are non-blaming and unlikely to prompt a retaliatory strike (it’s hard to argue with someone’s feelings) and, second, they help you gain clarity on what’s really bugging you. This brings me to my next point.
Be clear about what the fight is about. You may need to sleep on it. (“Don’t go to bed angry” is a cliché that should go the way of the dinosaur.) Go ahead. Take a time out. Then, approach your partner lucid on the burning issue. Don’t waste time arguing because he forgot to defrost the chicken when your beef is about abandonment on household chores.
Unpack your own baggage. If you want him to accept responsibility for his crap, you’ve got to own yours, too. Ask yourself what part of this you could have handled better. Then tell him.
Get creative. Once the problem is stated it needs to be solved. Brainstorm. Be specific — you’ll be surprised how bonding this problem-solving process can be. You never know where it will take you…
Now, remembering to use these tactics in the heat of the moment, well, that’s another thing. But hey, you’ve got the rest of your life to practice.
Join relationship columnist Liza Finlay each week as she dishes on ways to keep you and your partner close through the rocky terrain that is marriage with kids.
Do you have an issue you’d like Liza to explore in a future column? Drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave your comment below.