Secrets to Having a Good Fight
Practical points that are easy to say but a real challenge to implement.
Everyone disagrees. It’s impossible for two human beings, however much they care about each other, to always have the same position and perspective on every issue and situation. And we wouldn’t want them to anyway. We learn from different ways of seeing the world, from different positions and even from different personality types. The question isn’t if we will fight but rather how we will do it.
The researcher, John Gottman, in all his experiments about marriage has made two basic discoveries. One is that a healthy marriage needs to have more positive interactions than negative ones. And two, that nothing destroys a marriage like treating the other party with contempt. This may seem like intuitively obvious points not worthy of the time and effort of research – yet I think that if we examine our behaviors we may discover that, obvious or not, we are not necessarily putting them into practice.
A healthy marriage needs to have more positive interactions than negative ones. And nothing destroys a marriage like treating the other party with contempt.
Many of us have lots of neutral conversations – the “Did you pay the mortgage?” “Can you drive Monday’s carpool?” style of interaction. We may have negative interactions – “Why are you never home on time?” “You’re always on your phone when I want to talk to you.” And yes, we may treat our spouse with contempt, perhaps not intentionally, but does it matter? “How could you have walked out the front door without noticing that garbage bag sitting beside it?” said in a tone I think we all could recognize.
And how many positive interactions are we having? Sometimes they come naturally and sometimes we have to work at it. Just like we have to look for times to praise our children or interact with them in a kind and loving way as opposed to looking for ways to “help” them improve, the same is true with our spouses.
These are marriage basics – obvious intellectually but not so easy in practice. And even having mastered these, we still need tools to handle our disagreements. I would argue (pun intended) that not only can the right tone and strategy for handling these fights prevent destruction in our marriage, they could actually bring us closer.
Some of these points may not be new to you; our challenges are rarely that we don’t know what to do; it’s almost always in the implementation. And that’s why a little review never hurts.
1. Go to bed angry. I will never get tired of saying this because I feel I have to counter the wisdom of thousands of bridal showers. Everything looks worse at night. It’s built into the darkness. And, conversely, everything looks better by daylight. Sleep on it. It may even have dissipated totally by the morning. It will certainly have diminished.
2. Don’t take out your frustrations from your day – your boss, your friend, your children, their teachers, the bad drivers – on your spouse. They are not real target and they don’t deserve to be the recipients just because they are handy. It will definitely lead to resentment.
3. Don’t provoke a fight because you want an emotional response or interaction. If there is one party who is more emotionally expressive than the other, sometimes we feel that any emotion is better than none. Starting a fight leads to an emotional exchange – but be careful: it is not a positive one and could have damaging consequences. You need to vent your emotions? Rent a tear-jerker. Maybe you can even convince him to watch it with you!
4. Make sure the fight has legs. Are you really disagreeing? When we (read: I) would get really wound up, my husband would frequently stop us and say “What are you saying? What am I saying? What’s the difference? Let’s be clear.” I hated it when he said that. But it made sense. Sometimes we no longer disagreed but we were just caught up in the emotions.
5. Treat the other person with respect: no name calling, no threats, no leaving the room. Try to find merit in their position. If you respect them, then their position must have some legitimacy (even though it seems impossible to see!).
This leads to working on our empathy. Even if we disagree, we should try to understand our spouse’s position. Why do they feel this way? Why is it so important to them? This is a true opportunity for greater closeness.
6. If it’s much more important to them than it is to you, just give in. Don’t stand on principle. Someday the shoe will be on the other foot and presumably they will treat you the same way.
7. Choose your words carefully because you can’t take them back. Be very careful to speak courteously and kindly, the way you’d like to be spoken to. Try not to raise your voice and don’t ever bring up “divorce” as a tool to manipulate or hurt. You don’t want to create it as a real possibility. There is no excuse to “lose control” here. It’s a choice that we need to stop ourselves from making.
8. The silent treatment is self-destructive and pushes you further apart. Don’t compound the argument by not talking about it or refusing to engage. Recognize the foolishness of this strategy for resolving issues and creating marital harmony.
9. Choose your battles carefully. Make sure this fight/disagreement is worth it. Is the toilet seat really the hill you want to die on?
10. Have your discussions in private – not in front of your children or your friends. Even the discipline of stopping and taking it somewhere else will calm you both down and lend civility to the conversation.
11. Pick a third party who you both trust and agree upon – a Rabbi, friend, therapist, teacher – to be the one who breaks any impasse. This is a very helpful technique. On the rare occasions when my husband and I do this, even though I don’t always agree with what the Rabbi says, I abide by it because we agreed to it in advance and I respect his wisdom.
12. Remember that the goal is Shalom Bayit, peace in the house. Remember it’s a shared goal; you want it and he wants it. This isn’t a competition, a win-lose; if one person loses, you both lose. You are in this together. You are allies, not adversaries. Remind yourself of this point, repeatedly if necessary. You want to come closer together, not create further distance.
13. Pray. Ask the Almighty for patience, for the right words, for insight, for clarity and understanding, for peace in the home. It’s a goal that He also shares and supports.