Fair or foul, fighting is something all couples do. But for an argument to be effective (rather than destructive) it pays to know what’s behind the ire. So, in your corners…
Anne Russ, a marketing consultant in Boston, and Skip Lentz, a computer software executive, never had a single fight—until, that is, they got engaged. "Our first big blow-up was about the wedding itself," Anne recalls. "I didn't want a traditional wedding, and Skip did. I would have preferred to just elope. I didn't want a diamond ring, either." Once Anne stopped yelling, Skip explained to her that, since this was also going to be the happiest day of his life, he wanted to get married in front of his friends and family. "He said, ‘How can you not want that?'" Anne recalls. "He also told me that part of the reason he really wanted to get me a diamond was because he was proud that he could afford it. Once I understood how important these things were to him, I had to compromise." But, she laughs, "I kept my name. That was his side of the compromise."
Most people who are in love fight. Not us, you're saying? Give it time: Chances are serious disagreements will pop up eventually. It could be that you and your partner are in the midst of a prolonged infatuation period, wherein little about your mate bothers you enough to hash it out - yet. Or it might be that you're assiduously avoiding conflict, afraid it means something is terribly wrong with your relationship. According to Greg Godek, author of Love: The Course They Forgot to Teach You in School (Sourcebooks, 1997) many couples become distraught over knock-down, drag-out fights that they can't resolve quickly and neatly—and so they sidestep them.
"Don't think that just because you can't tie up the loose ends in a half hour like the couples in TV sitcoms, you've got a problem," says Godek. "Arguments are all about gray areas. In many cases there never will be a real answer, and that's okay." Believe it or not, according to the experts, such heated arguments can actually be a strong sign that your marriage is on the right track. "I don't think there's really a reason to fight until you're committed," says Anne Russ today. "Once Skip and I knew we were in this forever," she explains, "fights took on new meaning; they were something we had to figure out."
What Makes Couples' Fights Different
In the context of a committed relationship, fights provide a way for couples to reconnect, according to Greg Godek. "Although fighting is never fun or nice when you're in the middle of it, the outcome can be positive. In the midst of a fight you're miserable. In a way, it's like exercising. Is working out always fun? No. But it deals with your weak spots." And in a committed relationship, he adds, weak spots are the ones we most need to concentrate on.
Fights with the one we love are truly different, he explains, because the purpose of the fight is different. "In the ‘outside world,' it's all about winning and losing," says Godek. But that"s not true of squabbles with your spouse (or future spouse). Here, the purpose is more often to blow off the steam and/or to express an emotion—even if you don't know quite what that emotion is or what's behind your need to emote.
Fights can work like a psychological pressure-relief valve, helping you to reestablish emotional equilibrium. The problem, Godek says, is that we've all been conditioned to believe fighting can only be a win-lose proposition. "Most of us shift into a win-lose mode in an argument," he says. "Because we subconsciously expect an argument to have a clear winner and loser, we line up all of our ‘evidence' as though we're going before a jury. We focus on the idea of winning the fight."