In a boxing match, two opponents square off in a ring. As they both try to land “shots,” they are closely monitored by the referee and the scorekeepers, who determine who the winner will be.
Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield took to the ring in 1997, and a wide audience gathered to see a fair fight between two worthy opponents. But during a stalemate, Tyson did the unconscionable – he bit off part of Holyfield’s ear. This made for boxing controversy and cries of foul for years.
Therapists use fighting, games, and even war metaphors meant to help couples engage in what is often called “fair fighting,” and fighting fair is the object of this series on marital conflict.
Rules in boxing ensure for a lively contest where no one gets hurt, and in marriage it’s not so very different. Fighting fair de-escalates aggression and keeps everyone physically and emotionally safe.
Conflict avoidance is decidedly the wrong answer, but aggression is a powerful deterrent for less confrontational partners. As in boxing, “shots” are acceptable or they are not, and while this series is not about developing a point system for marital arguments, rules for fighting can keep “rounds” from devolving into an all-out power struggle where both partners lose. Learning how to handle a fight – what to do and what not to do – is especially important if the goal is to increase intimacy, expedite problem solving, and improve decision making.
Conflict Avoidance: Avoiding the “Fight”
“I can’t believe our therapist is telling us to fight more,” one of my clients once complained about my advice. She and her husband hadn’t had a single fight in 20 years of marriage. They’d only agreed to come see me when their marriage was breaking down, but it was already too late.
After a few months I realized the complaining client actively worked against my efforts to spur communication between her and her husband; she practiced conflict avoidance in our sessions as insistently as she did at home, and that wasn’t about to change. The couple divorced not long after they began counseling.
Later the client who balked at my suggestion confessed my advice would have been better taken had she received it several years prior. She shared with me that by the time she and her husband reached out, she’d already filed for divorce. She’d also taken up with someone new, and she came to therapy only as a block-checking exercise to appease friends and family. One of the most insidious issues between them, she shared, was her belief that “fighting” was wrong.
People rarely see conflict avoidance as a problem in marriages, but it is. Those seeking anger management classes often, and ironically, see anger as aggression, even wrong or sinful. But anger can lead to self-reflection, conflict, and often needed changes. Intensity simply means the relationship is actually happening, not that something is going wrong. Conflict is not only a good thing, if managed well, it can lead to healthier, happier, and stronger marriages.
Slaps and Grabs: What to Avoid
My husband and I collect funny stories of fights we’ve had and share them at gatherings with trusted friends to make them laugh. We also tell them to remind others that we all have unhappy exchanges in marriage and that no one should feel ashamed or isolated because of them. No marriage is perfect and no one has a perfect record, but we can all turn things around whenever we’re ready to avoid certain behaviors and reactions.
One of our favorite marital stories is about a conflict we had that went unresolved for more than two years in our early marriage. It had to do with the ever-pressing question of how a couple, with competing needs, should handle a cashier at the convenience window of a fast food restaurant.
“We’ll take a double cheeseburger and a large chili with cheese, onions, and sour cream, please,” my husband Tim said as he placed our order. At the time, we liked to run errands together weekly, and Tim would eventually get hungry during the day. To expedite things I’d insist we grab food on the go, because I found errand-running grueling and wanted to get it over with as fast as we could.
The first time we ordered food at a drive-through, after we paid, Tim pulled forward too quickly for me to inventory our bags of food and make sure we had everything we needed.
“Food . . . napkins . . . check. No ketchup! They forgot the ketchup,” I complained.
“That’s okay,” Tim dismissed my irritation at the cashier. “I’ll just drive around and go inside to get some.” It seemed like a reasonable, albeit cumbersome, resolution to the problem.
The next time we went through, he did it again. I’d prompted him to let me look into the bag before driving away, but he just ignored me, pulled the car around, parked it, and ran inside for missing items. This would be an ongoing pattern of behavior.
No matter how adamant I was that we stop to get ketchup, napkins, salt, even a spoon for my chili, Tim would not oblige.
“Now wait,” I finally protested during one pass through the drive-through. “Shouldn’t they at least remember utensils?” As usual, Tim passively voted with his feet in response, driving around, parking, and getting out. “This is wrong,” I declared. “They should make sure they included everything we need!” No reply.
Before long, the way we handled cashiers at a drive-through became an all-out marital argument that ruined our time together every time we stopped to refuel.
“I’m ready to stop getting food on errand days,” I threatened, steaming every time we drove away from a restaurant without napkins. “This defies the whole point of convenience.”
“I’d rather go inside anyway,” Tim finally admitted. “I hate drive-through windows.”
The ongoing argument between us grew so unpleasant, we ended up having to negotiate a solution to reduce the tension. After one fairly short exchange, we easily agreed: whoever is the one driving the car gets to handle the napkin and ketchup issue their own way – so naturally, the argument shifted to who was going to drive.
After 27 years of marriage, we’ve both learned that taking turns between eating on the go or sitting down in a restaurant is a nice thing to do for each other. Also, the strategies we used back then weren’t very helpful.
Tim engaged in what I call “controlling by ignoring” or “voting with his feet,” which is definitely in the slaps-and-grabs category of marital conflict. First, he avoided the boxing ring altogether, never sharing with me how much he hated drive-through windows. Since he resented not getting to go inside the restaurant, he ignored my pleas to make the convenience window do its job.
The argument shifting into who was driving the car was proof positive of a growing power struggle, and I hasten to add my own foul – “moralizing.” Over the two years we grappled over how to handle cashiers, I’d developed a veritable dissertation – one I repeated mercilessly at restaurants – about how we were hurting young cashiers by not teaching them the good old values of customer service, a lost art that was fading from society.
Ignoring by controlling and moralizing are among other “slaps and grabs” that will be explored in the following essay in this series. Bad habits, leading spouses to throw down the gloves or let hot conversations combust into all-out brawls, are easier to avoid than people might think.
Some examples are obvious – no hitting, yelling, name-calling – but some need to be identified because they’re not so easy to see, some technical, like using “I statements,” and others insidious, manipulative tactics designed to advance a power trip.
Hitting Below the Belt
There are things that happen between couples that make this one rule – no low blows – the most important when it comes to fighting fair in marriage. The issue, ironically, can be more complicated than just where you aim your punches.
“Low blows” like name calling, threats, and, of course, physical posturing or violence (a topic for later) are all examples of aggression that are demonstratively harmful. But there are maneuvers in arguments that are “passive” aggressive, one common example having to do with where the belt is placed to begin with.
Picture two boxers entering the ring, both opponents agreeing not to hit below the belt. Now imagine one of them with an especially big pair of boxing shorts covering their entire torso, the belt hiked way up around their neck. This leaves their opponent, of course, with nowhere to strike, and a fight where only one boxer can hit the other isn’t very fair.
In Ed and Mary’s first year of marriage, Mary refused to argue with her husband if he talked with his hands. As he tried to accommodate her, he realized he couldn’t think, let alone talk, without his hands. Desperate to resolve differences, Ed tried to sit on his hands just to have a marital argument, which didn’t work very well.
An older more seasoned wife told Mary she needed to lower the belt, so she finally agreed to negotiate. Mary agreed she would tolerate some hand-usage during arguments, if Ed agreed not to point at her. Mary learned, once they began to resolve differences, that she had a lot of pent up anger at Ed because in past marital arguments, she felt Ed was tireless, too pushy, and always got his way.
Past experiences of mistreatment or associating a marital dynamic with past trauma can result in sensitivity to behaviors that block the flow of communication. In Mary’s case, it was later discovered that she prevented conversations with Ed because she struggled with deep resentments about how arguments usually turned out.
Staging an overreaction to a spouse’s expressive mannerisms is an example of “wearing the belt too high.” Just as I do in cases of overt aggression, I often recommend that those exhibiting passive aggressive behaviors consider anger management before entering the marital ring.
Marital Conflict: The Series
More low blows of marital conflict will be explored in a subsequent article titled, Why You Should Avoid a “Low Blow” in Fights with Your Spouse. Common marital low blows will be listed and explored, articulating habits and behaviors to avoid if you want to fight fair.
Some slaps and grabs are easier to see than others, and questions about how to recognize them and what to do will be discussed in further detail. An unbreakable pattern of low blows may indicate trauma counseling or anger management treatment is called for before marital therapy ensues. This will be considered as well.
In the third essay of the series, Marital Conflict: How to Use Active Listening to Your Benefit, we will review behaviors that de-escalate conflict and improve communication. Proactive steps to keep conflict from damaging the relationship, like Active Listening will be prioritized and explored.
The series will conclude with Marital Conflict: The Importance of Healthy Boundaries, which offers a review of what healthy boundaries are, how to create a safety plan, and what to do when marital discord becomes domestic violence. The essay will try to help clarify where the line is between tolerating differences, not wearing the belt too high, and when you’re not wearing the belt high enough.
Points to Remember
- Differences are normal in marriage. Healthy marriages expect and allow disagreement. A marriage without conflict isn’t usually an intimate one. Conflict is common to marriages, and conflict avoidance can lead to anger and resentment.
- An attitude of healthy sparring can increase intimacy, expedite problem solving, and improve decision making in marriage.
- Slaps and grabs (i.e. controlling by ignoring and moralizing) are worth learning about. Learning to fight fair starts with knowing what to avoid.
- Behaviors that undermine conflict are not always obvious or helpful. Understand both aggressive and passive aggressive behaviors. Acting on feelings of aggression will undermine a relationship and the healing process. Some strategies really help.
- Marital unhappiness lends itself to a form of loneliness that can become very miserable if it goes on too long.
Christian Counseling for Conflict Avoidance in Marriage
If you’re looking for help learning how to manage conflict well in your marriage relationship, I invite you to browse the counselor directory and schedule an appointment for marriage counseling. Having a professional to help you sift through the issues and create a clear treatment plan can be incredibly useful for moving toward a healthier, happier marriage.
“The Boxer”, Courtesy of antfrank, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Argument”, Courtesy of RyanMcGuire, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Warrior Woman”, Courtesy of xusenru, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “The Champ”, Courtesy of Skitterphoto, Pixabay.com, CC0 License