A great article that I stumble upon from Laurence Stains.
“He who lives without quarreling is a bachelor.” —St. Jerome
You should see a videotape of your last fight. No, not the one you had with that loudmouth at the Giants game. I’m talking about the argument with your wife.
Do you have any idea what you looked like? I do. I recently spent 3 days with some marriage experts, watching couples fight. The arguments were all on tape, so I didn’t have to duck any glassware being hurled across the kitchen, but the participants were real couples having real fights. And one thing became very clear: Fighting is a waste of time. Nobody wins. Everyone looks pathetic.
Every marriage has its disagreements, and we all argue about the same handful of issues (mostly money and kids, followed by housework, sex, in-laws, jobs, and time). That doesn’t matter. What matters is how you argue. And if the pattern is destructive, it will surely kill a marriage. Bad feelings will crowd out good feelings, until each partner feels like this: An opportunity to be with you is a chance to be hassled instead of loved and supported. That’s the tipping point, when things turn sour.
Ninety-three percent of couples who fight dirty will be divorced in 10 years. This statistic comes from therapists who have investigated the causes of marital distress and failure. They videotape couples fighting; then they call these couples years later to see what happened. And what happened is shockingly predictable.
Two marital therapists who’ve conducted this sort of research at the University of Denver are Howard Markman and Scott Stanley. They now teach couples—both newlyweds and folks who’ve been married for years—how to fight better, how to clear the air without clearing the room. And they’ve been remarkably successful. Five years after participating in one of Markman and Stanley’s courses, couples are twice as likely to still be together compared with couples who didn’t take the course.
But you don’t have to attend one of Markman and Stanley’s workshops—or even read their book, Fighting for Your Marriage—to improve your relationship. Just start practicing these five strategies for keeping your arguments under control.
1. Stay Off the Escalator
The first sign of destructive fighting is what Markman and Stanley call escalation. The idea is simple: Even though you and your wife may start out arguing about something small, inevitably tempers flare, voices get louder, and that “little thing” disappears in an exchange of big threats.
To avoid such encounters, Markman and Stanley suggest a technique called “active listening,” in which partners take turns talking and paraphrasing what the other is telling them (“What I hear you saying is . . .”). Yes, you’ll feel dorky and self-conscious when you do this, but in a way that’s the point. Active listening slows you down, makes you listen to what the other person is really saying, and stops you from blasting away with both barrels.
Okay, so what if you’re willing to stay on fighting’s first floor, but your wife is the one constantly hopping on the escalator? Don’t tell her to calm down. That just makes you come off as patronizing, which fuels her anger. Instead, you make the effort to calm down. Keep your expression serious and say something like, “How about if I just listen to you for a few minutes, and you can tell me what you’re thinking.”
2. Be Her Mirror
Another sign that you’re fighting ugly is invalidation. This occurs when you move beyond arguing about issues and start committing character assassination and name-calling. You know, the really fun stuff.
Lay off these tricks yourself. And if your wife slings one of those personal assaults your way, call her bluff. She’s saying horrible things, but she doesn’t really mean any of it. (If she did, she’d be gone by now.) Stanley suggests a very successful tactic that works in just about any contentious situation. “When someone’s on the attack, paraphrase them. Gently reflect what she’s saying so she can hear it.” You could say, “Let me get this right. You think I’ve never really cared about you at all?”
Just be sure to sound sincere, not sarcastic. If you can do this, it’s like holding up a mirror, which is gentler, and far more effective than saying, “Look in the mirror, bitch.”
3. Don’t Dis Her Memory
Often, in the heat of an argument, the first thing that each partner will try to invalidate is the other’s memory. If it turns into a who-remembers-it-better shouting match and she says, “Oh, no, you said blah-blah,” don’t respond in kind. You’ll only imply that her memory is more defective than yours (which it may be, but . . . ). Instead, say this: “I’m not sure what I said. What I meant was. . . .”
The point: It doesn’t really matter who remembers it better. “Bring it into the present,” says Markman. “And stop arguing about what was said or not said.”
4. Don’t Let Her Read Your Mind
If she claims you were secretly hoping her mother wouldn’t stay all weekend, you could say, flat out, “Don’t read my mind.” But that’s risky. “You’re labeling her behavior, and that could be dynamite,” says Stanley. Instead, try this: “That’s not what I was thinking. Can I please just tell you what I was thinking?”
You? Thinking? The shock might be so great that your wife will drop her fighting gloves immediately.
5. Don’t Put a Sock in It
Markman and Stanley’s third fighting danger sign, withdrawal, involves a clear and documented difference between the genders. Women value any interaction in a relationship, even if it’s negative. Men tend to value instrumental, problem-solving interactions, and we shut down when the volume goes up. Our physical response to the stress of yet another argument is the classic fight-or-flight reaction, and most men take flight. Especially if she’s the verbally skilled one in the marriage—and most women have been a step ahead of us verbally since preschool.
All this leads to a lethal dynamic: She brings up a problem; you don’t want to talk about it. She gets angry; you fear more conflict and close up tighter. She interprets that to mean you’re detaching from the marriage. For the past 25 years, this scenario has been noted by marriage experts for its reliability in predicting marital instability and divorce.
“The biggest mistake women make is getting angry at us,” says Markman. It fails to solve the conflict and succeeds only in eroding the entire marriage. Here’s what you can do about it. The next time you withdraw and she starts yelling about your pushing her away, say something like, “I don’t want to shut you out. But I hate to fight with you.” The exact words are unimportant. Just make her realize that you’re not pulling away from her (the standard rap on men). You’re just avoiding conflict. The first time you say this will be such a paradigm shift in your marriage, she’ll be more affected by your change than the wording of it. In fact, your wife may be so stunned that the fight will stop right there. Make-up sex, anyone?