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Making Marriage Work by Fighting Fairly

Some couples claim that they never argue. That's next to impossible in marriages where both partners feel free to express their differences. Other couples have frequent arguments that sometimes get very loud. However, the volume and frequency of fights aren't very telling — nor are the issues that a couple fights about. The most important question is: Are the fights fair?

In marriage, you and your spouse have to referee your own disputes without help from a third party, so you need to hammer out rules and limits that work for you. The two of you can set flexible boundaries that suit your individual personalities and your marriage — as long as you follow the rules of fair fighting.

Understand what's really going on

When you sense that a fight is about to erupt between and your partner, try to scope out the underlying cause of the argument:

  • Are you or your spouse just letting off steam?
  • Is there something specific that you want your partner to do?
  • Are your angry words an expression of serious differences or conflict in your marriage?

Different strategies are effective for handling different kinds of arguments. The following techniques can work well, depending on the situation:

  • If your partner is just blowing off steam, it's sometimes a good idea to say nothing and let him or her cool down.
  • If you want your partner to do something, a direct approach often works best.
  • If your arguments are part of an ongoing pattern that leaves one or both of you feeling bad, consider seeking out professional help.

Stick to the issues

You're more likely to get your partner to see things your way if you avoid personal attacks and concentrate on what you're trying to accomplish. For example, if you're upset because your wife is late, don't say, "You have absolutely no consideration for other people." Instead, try saying: "I feel more relaxed and have a much better time when we get to places a few minutes early. Can we do it that way next time?"

Your partner is likely to respond to your needs if she doesn't feel attacked and forced to defend herself.

Look for ways to bend without breaking

In a successful marriage, both partners must be able to compromise and negotiate. Sometimes, the two of you can find a middle ground. If, for example, you want to spend your two-week summer vacation at the shore and he wants to spend it at a resort with a golf course, you can work it out in several different ways:

  • You can both spend a week at the shore, then a week at the resort.
  • You can each spend a portion of your vacation time apart.
  • You can agree to go to the shore this summer, and to the golf resort next summer.

Figure out what's at stake for each of you — and defer to the partner whose needs are stronger. For example, if your wife has had a particularly stressful year and you know that she finds spending time near the ocean relaxing, consider taking the kind of vacation she wants this summer.

In the long run, it's most important that the outcome of your disagreement doesn't leave one of you feeling like a loser. If you yield on an issue that's important to your partner, it's likely that your partner will do the same for you on another occasion.

Use strategic timing

Be sensitive to your partner's shifting moods. Is your husband rushed and frazzled most mornings? If so, don't raise difficult issues when you wake up, especially if they're going to require a long discussion. Instead, pick a time when he seems more relaxed and positively disposed.

Timing your request doesn't mean that you're walking on eggshells or that you're afraid to speak. It simply means that if your partner is in a negative frame of mind, he may say no to something that he'd agree to at another time.

Don't garbage-bag

When people get into an argument, they often start with one issue, segue into another, and wind up throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. They then bring up a host of past grudges and resentments.

Discuss only one issue at a time. If you're arguing about household finances, don't throw up her tendency to be late, or that he burned the chicken when preparing last night's dinner. When you do that, you're sure to wind up fighting about personalities — not issues.

Don't try to fix your partner. Marital arguments often give husbands and wives an excuse to practice a little dime-store psychology. Someone will say things like, "The problem is that you're just like your mother," or, "We're not going to get anywhere until you get over your neurosis." Your spouse needs to feel loved and respected for who he or she is!

You are not your spouse's therapist. It's not your job to fix his or her personal problems. Trying to do so is an especially counterproductive strategy when you're in the middle of a fight.

Don't go for the jugular

When arguments between married couples become heated, a common strategy is to throw up the one thing that's sure to hurt your partner's feelings. For example, if a husband knows his wife is insecure about her skills as a mother, he may attack that vulnerability in the middle of an argument about housework.

Attacking your partner's weak spot in the middle of a fight is one of the worst things you can do. These attacks generate a lot of bad feeling that can last long after the immediate argument ends.

Don't take the moral high ground

When married partners have an argument, the issue at hand often gets buried beneath a battle about who is a better, kinder, more considerate human being. Unless you or your partner is trying to win an election, it's not important to sort out who the better candidate is. Chances are, both of you do your share in creating problems. Nobody wins when the focus of a fight shifts from a specific issue to a battle over whether the husband or wife is morally superior.

Make sure both of you can live with the outcome

Some arguments lend themselves to compromise. Others wind up being resolved in ways that favor one spouse over the other. Still others have no clear outcome — and are likely to be repeated again and again.

When one partner feels crushed in the wake of an argument, the long-term health of the marriage suffers. Even if you give in, neither of you should feel bullied or manipulated by your spouse.

Husbands and wives who are committed to each other and their marriage understand that neither partner truly wins if the other walks away feeling like a loser. Both of you have to be able to live with the outcome of your disputes, or someone will wind up feeling angry and resentful.

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