By: Abigale Hassel
Do you and your spouse fight a lot? Does that concern you? I will tell you what I tell my clients. Fighting is not the problem. It is how you fight that may be the problem. It is normal to have disagreements within a healthy relationship. You and your spouse are not always going to agree on things and that is fine. What is not fine is when the fighting becomes hostile, mean-spirited or filled with anger. Often, I have couples say to me, “We fight all the time about such stupid things!” My response is usually, “You are not fighting about what you think you are fighting about.” When we are not honest about our feelings or when we do not deal with resentment the minute we feel it, we are allowing anger to grow and poison the relationship. Not only is fighting fairly ok to do, it is actually essential for the relationship. Here are some basic rules to fighting fairly:
Rule #1: Identify what is truly bothering you.
In order for your spouse to address whatever it is that is bothering you, you must own your feelings and be honest about what you are feeling. A lot of people are afraid to confront their spouse because they are often met with defense and they are afraid of having a fight. If you suppress your feelings, they do not go away. They tend to find their way out some other way. So, that knockdown, drag out fight you and your spouse had about one of you not changing the toilet paper roll was not really about toilet paper. Your attempt to avoid a fight did not work, did it? If you express your feelings using “I” statements, then your spouse may be less likely to react with defensiveness and anger. For example, “I feel frustrated when you don’t do simple things I ask you to do, because I work so much and I need some help.” Your feelings are your feelings and feelings are not wrong. Just deal with them before the anger grows.
Rule# 2: Stay on topic.
In order to resolve an issue with your spouse, it is important to stay on the topic of discussion. Do not go through a laundry list of past offenses by your spouse. It is really easy to allow a disagreement to turn into a full argument, with yelling and screaming, if you are sifting through old events that have already been discussed ad nauseum. I had a couple that I counseled for about a year. They would often bring the same issues, time and time again, to session. Often, they would get quite heated about seemingly banal issues. They finally realized all of the extraneous things about which they were fighting over and over were not really the main problems. In a nutshell, the wife did not feel loved by her husband and the husband felt that his wife did not respect him. Deal with the current issue and keep it in the present. Your spouse cannot go back and change offenses that have already taken place, but he or she can address the current issue, so keep it on topic and then you will see change for the better.
Rule #3: Do not use verbal stabbing.
Verbal stabbing is a phrase I use to identify the behavior of saying things in the heat of an argument to hurt your spouse. Others call this “hitting below the belt.” You love your spouse, remember? You can get your point across without attacking his or her vulnerabilities. Things you say in the heat of an argument can linger on well after the fight is over. I counseled a couple who had very hostile arguments. The wife often went right for the verbal stabbing. The husband was on disability because he had severe pain issues that result from past cancer treatments. He was very depressed because he could not work. His wife often called him “lazy” or she accused him of exaggerating his symptoms so he could avoid helping more around the house. This fed his negative self-image and depression. You do not have to cut your spouse down or make him or her feel less than he or she is simply to win an argument. There is no winning if you go for the emotional jugular. You are allowed to identify how you feel and you are allowed to address behavior that makes you feel that way, but if you want to fight fairly, do not purposely say things that will hurt your spouse. Remember, you cannot un-ring a bell.
Rule #4: Allow for cool down periods if needed.
If the conversation gets too heated, then it is ok for you to recognize that and ask for a period of time to walk away and calm yourself. It is better to take a pause then let the argument get out of hand. If you start to yell, use verbal stabbing or even start throwing things or destroying property, it is much better to walk away and gather yourself. In life, there are going to be issues that elicit a lot of emotion within you or your spouse. It is much better to acknowledge and accept that than it is to allow your temper to get the best of you. This takes discipline and self-awareness, but it may be a necessary step until you and your spouse learn to communicate better.
Rule #5: Schedule your discussion and set a limit.
Life is busy with raising kids, having a career or both. Often, one spouse wants to initiate a discussion when the other is otherwise occupied. In these cases, it is perfectly acceptable to agree on a specific time to have the discussion. By agreeing on a time to discuss the problem, you can avoid causing more contention between you and your spouse. I am currently counseling a couple in which the wife used to incessantly text her husband during the day when something bothered her. When he did not immediately respond, she would grow even angrier and then, by the time he finally could respond, she had already worked herself up into frenzy of anger and resentment. Once we identified this, she learned to ask if they could discuss an issue later in the evening and she wrote down her complaints to keep her from working herself up before the agreed upon time for discussion. This helped their communication tremendously. Along with scheduling the specific time for discussions, try to limit the amount of time you devote to an issue. Many problems can be resolved within a reasonable period of time with good communication. If you spend too much time on one issue, the discussion can become cyclical and nothing is resolved. Know what your agenda is, stick to it, and limit the time you spend discussing it. After all, you could be spending the time with your spouse in much more enjoyable ways.
Do not be afraid to disagree with your spouse. It will happen, probably a lot, but just keep this in mind. You need to get to the root of your feelings. If a discussion turns into an angry fight, please remember that anger is a secondary emotion. There is always something beneath the anger. The more vulnerable emotions like fear, shame, sadness, tend to get covered with a shield of anger when we become defensive. It is very easy to become defensive if we get into a disagreement with our spouse. If you can remember that you are on the same side and not each other’s competition and if you can fight fairly, you will find that you are building a mutually satisfying and fulfilling marriage, because you will always be able to resolve any differences. That will free up more time for the good stuff! So, fight fairly now and enjoy the fruits of your marriage later.
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Abigale S. Hassel is a licensed Clinical Social Worker, and individual and couples counselor. MSW, LCSW, OSW-C.
**The advice provided represents the opinions of the author. It is not to be considered therapy or professional advice of any kind. If you require such advice, you should consult an appropriate professional. Refer to the Marriage Rocks Website Terms and Conditions (link in page footer) for other applicable terms and conditions.**