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."
Understanding the Arguing Process
To complicate matters further, most couples' arguments typically center on immediate, concrete issues - say, one partner's habit of leaving socks on the floor, or another partner forgetting to fill the car's tank with gas. Nevertheless, explains Godek, "what you think you're arguing about is rarely the underlying reason for the fight." Take the socks-on-the-floor argument: It's more likely about respect, space, or power issues than it is about neatness.
But why do we use such inconsequential issues as socks on the floor to get at the real reasons we're moved to argue? Because, says Godek, human beings are complex. "We don't always make common sense—we make emotional sense, or try to. If I feel a certain way, I don't always need a reason." Nor, sometimes, do we even know the reason ourselves.
That said, Godek offers guidelines to help pinpoint the emotions that lurk behind common arguments. It may vary for the two of you or be different at different times, but these are often on the mark: Arguing about money is rarely about money; it's about power. Arguing about sex is rarely about sexuality; it's about intimacy. Arguing about chores is rarely about the chores; it's about fairness. Arguing about jealousy is rarely about fidelity; it's about maturity. Arguing about work is rarely about the work; it's about time. Arguing about relatives is rarely about them. It's about expectations. But since arguing is by its nature a logical process, he notes, it breaks down when we apply it to emotional issues. That's why many of us are more comfortable shouting about the socks than confronting deep-seated issues of fairness, responsibility, power, or control.
Of course, emotional outbursts go nowhere, although they refuse to die. The key, says Godek, is to get at the underlying emotions. Pinpointing feelings is devilishly difficult, he says, "but that's what can ultimately make fighting rewarding." Anne and Skip are living proof. Today, after a year and a half of marriage, they've weathered—and benefited from—many heated discussions since that first big fight. Recently, Anne wanted to hire a housekeeper to stay on top of cleaning chores—but Skip refused for economic reasons. "I had always spent my money the way I wanted to," says Anne. "But in our marriage, Skip was more in control of the purse strings. When I tried to tell him I didn't feel like I had an equal say in how we spent our money, he told me I was silly, and we fought."
Once Skip understood the emotional issues behind their argument, it clicked as to why it was so important to Anne. In this case, a heated argument paved a way to grasp the emotional issues underlying their fight—and to recommit to making joint spending decisions. Now, they've agreed to hire a housekeeper on an occasional basis.
The trick, obviously, is for both members of the couple to understand and express their emotions. And that's not always easy in the heat of the moment. "The real skill is to determine the purpose of the fight," explains Godek. "Then you can really deal with it." And what if one partner is more even-tempered than the other? "That's fine," says Godek. "As long as both styles of fighting are accepted." For example, he says, say a hot-tempered woman marries a calm, placid man. During arguments, the even-tempered husband should not assume that his feisty bride is in need of advice or calming down when her emotions flare. "It's not fair for one person to put the other in too tight a straightjacket," he says. Nor is it right for the emotional partner to eschew the value of logic. Both parties must believe that emotions are just as valid—if not more so—as logic when they fight.
Fighting the Good Fight
We all know the rules about "How to Fight Fair": Stick to the Point; Discuss One Issue at a Time; Don't Bring up the Past; and—most of all —Never Compare Your Partner to Your Parents. Well, guess what? Following those old-fangled rules can "suck all the emotion out of an argument," says Greg Godek. Why is that a bad thing? Because while such "clean" fights may look and sound good (call them "Made for TV" fights), without emotional release the core problems may never be addressed or resolved. Plus at some point, most of us need to blow off steam.
So let go if you have to—anything goes! The only rules for an air-clearing argument, says Godek, are no hitting, and no throwing objects directly at your partner. But go ahead and slam doors, make noise, shout obscenities—whatever it takes to get the job done. And remember, the most productive fights occur when both of you relinquish the idea of winning or losing. "Phyllis Diller used to say, ‘Never go to bed mad; stay up and fight!' It's good advice," says Godek. "Stay up until 2 am if that's what it takes. Ask yourselves: Can you get three hours of sleep and still be okay the next day? The answer is yes!"
Making Fighting Work for You
According to Hedy Schleifer, M.A., a licensed mental health counselor and director of Hedy Schleifer & Associates, A Center For Relationship Therapy, in Winter Park, Florida, every conflict in an intimate relationship presents an opportunity for growth. "Marriage should be a safe laboratory for the creation of two adults," she says. Once two people have established a safety zone, they can invite conflict, and learn from it. Rather than merely serving to keep couples connected, Schleifer maintains, the deeper purpose of marital conflict is healing.
"When we fight, two little children come out," she explains. "You're two or three years old again. When you're shouting at each other, you're hurting." The key is to locate the hurt beneath the anger. And for that reason, she says, simply blowing up isn't enough. "Just because something's resolved doesn't mean it's dissolved," she says. The first step, she explains, is for couples to realize that recurring fights may have little to do with what's going on right now, and a lot to do with what's happened in the past. Once you've done that, she advises, "start looking for clues—what about the past has you shouting or fighting now?"
Schleifer encourages couples to keep a picture of their partner as a child in their wallets. "When you get into a fight, think of that child—that's the person who's hurting," she advises.
It is inevitable that couples will face conflict—especially in the most satisfying marriages, says Schleifer. "The incompatible things between you are really the basis of a good marriage." Such conflicts, in fact, are actually a sign that you're with the right person.
"During the idealized, early romantic phase, all you see is compatibility," she explains. "You like broccoli, and so do I. It's a match made in heaven!" But the longer you know your mate, the more differences and incompatibilities you find in one another. And that, says Schleifer, is because the true purpose of marriage is "to help us finish childhood—to complete each other." The personnel department inside of each of us unconsciously selects just the right person for the job.
That's the way it happened with JD Tyre, a freelance photographer in Atlanta, and his wife Lisa, a marketing manager. "I try not to label what we do ‘fighting,'" says JD. "What we do is more of a win-win thing. I call it a ‘discussion.'"
Because they have become accustomed to hashing things out, JD and Lisa have been able to get at the root of squabbles, whatever they seem to be about on the surface. "For example, in an argument over spending money, we are able to look at our individual irresponsible behaviors and realize that our fight isn't about who spends more on morning coffee, but about our pervasive attitudes about money," says JD.
The key is the seriousness of their commitment. "When we enter into a discussion, we know that our partnership is something that we are committed to. We have agreed to resolve arguments for the betterment of the partnership." Their agreement to disagree provides them with a rare freedom. "We come away from these discussions feeling not only more insightful about ourselves, but also better about our marriage."
Oddly enough, JD already carries in his wallet a picture of Lisa in the first grade. "It reminds me that I married a whole person," he says. "When I first met her, I just thought she was this really hot woman. But when she gave me this picture, I knew I needed to figure out how this person came to be."
Schleifer says couples like JD and Lisa are on the right track. "If you learn to deal with conflict when you are newly married, it will make a huge difference." The goal should be to welcome every conflict, she says, because eventually there comes a day when the majority of the tension is resolved. "At that point, the relationship gets more creative, and there's more energy." All the energy that was caught up in conflict will naturally turn to other things, Schleifer promises. "And life gets richer and more full of passion."
Making Up Is Easy to Do
You know that fighting can't be all bad, because making up is such fun! If releasing pent-up emotions and getting at deep-seated issues aren't enough motivation to hone your arguing skills, consider this: Make-up sex. Looking for innovative ways to make up after the smoke clears? Try one (or more) of these suggestions:
- Give yourselves a score on how "well" you argued (You might want to wait a few hours before trying this one.) You're not scoring each other, but the two of you together. Consider how you handled the fight and what you learned, and give yourself points for creativity. Then redeem those points for a romantic dinner, massages, whatever.
- Create a post-fight ritual Make a point of having a glass of wine on the back porch following each heavy argument. Or take a walk early the next morning. Slow dance to a favorite song. Whatever the ritual, use it to remind yourselves you've made it through another tough one with your love intact.
- Keep a diary Here again, don't try this in the heat of the moment. But do attempt to get down on paper, together, the facts of the argument: what it seemed to be about; what it was really about; where it took place; any really great lines; and - most important - how you both felt afterwards. You may find yourselves laughing at these recollections as years go by.
- Turn the fight around Use the same emotional-release skills you practiced in the argument to communicate fervor. Were you thinking that he looks sexy when he's angry? After the argument, say so—passionately.
- Move beyond flowers and cards to say "I'm sorry" Nurture your partner's spiritual passions. Bring home that new CD he's been pining for, or that book she's been dying to read. A great gesture after a fight about how he spends too much time going to sporting events: two tickets to his favorite team's next home game. Trust us, he'll love it—and you.
- Explore the unknown Visit a new restaurant, check out a performance by a new band, or tackle the climbing wall at the gym. Whatever you do, use the confidence you've gained resolving your disagreements to raise the bar of what you're capable of together. This can mean wilderness camping or it can mean spending a week without TV. You decide.
- Explore the unknown, part two So you've been in the bedroom before. Does that have to make it a dull place? Bring something new to the "table" this time—a fantasy, a stanza of poetry, a romantic movie, a tub of Cool Whip. Use your imagination, and have fun.
- Show and tell Let your partner know you appreciate how he handles you, your disputes, and all the thorny paths you've traveled to a better understanding. You can say it, write it, or toss in an unexpected hug here and there. Make sure the message gets across, though.
- Speaking of unexpected hugs… What about the unexpected naughty Polaroid? Or the unexpected cell-phone whispers? Or the unexpected provocative e-mail? Hi-tech your way to togetherness.
- Really make up Never leap to the make-up part until the argument has been fully resolved, or at least until an emotional connection has been reestablished. Having make-up sex too soon in an effort to smooth over unaddressed problems is ultimately useless and unfulfilling.
Buy the Book: Order Love: The Course They Forgot to Teach You in School by Greg Godek (Sourcebooks, 1997) from Amazon.com.