It’s inevitable. Even in the best, most loving relationships people will clash and experience conflict at times. Each of you has different likes and dislikes, objectives, and views. Eventually, you will find yourselves in a situation where only one can have their way, and someone will get their feelings hurt. Be encouraged, though. Conflict is a normal part of any relationship, and Gottman’s research demonstrates that it won’t do permanent harm if you don’t let it get out of control.
When you and your spouse are at odds, it is usually because of selfishness or because you are focusing on the other person’s less desirable qualities. It would be unusual if someone did not get upset over a situation like this. The way to keep your marriage intact is not by preventing the anger, but by preventing it from getting out of hand. For decades, Dr. Gottman has been studying couples. His work shows that even though a person reacts to their spouse’s hostility with hostility of their own, this does not mean that their marriage is destined to fail. Unhealthy patterns occur when either spouse reacts by escalating the bad feelings.Increasing the negative emotion is harmful because it exposes a deeper fault-line in the marriage relationship – a husband or wife refusing to allow themselves to be influenced by the other. And, (as Gottman’s inquiries suggest) since the wife brings up most of the issues in a marriage, it is typically the husband who doesn’t want to be “told what to do” by his wife. According to Gottman, husbands and wives typically raise the stress level because they want to make the fight bad enough to keep the instigating spouse from furthering it.
The husband who refuses to be lovingly corrected by his wife won’t examine his own poor conduct and will turn relatively small disagreements into major conflicts, bringing harm to his marriage. When a husband insists on keeping a tight grasp on all of the authority in a marriage, Gottman says that there is an 81 percent chance the relationship will fail.
How to Argue with Your Spouse
In order to circumvent the poison of negativity, both spouses are required to keep their tempers in check and to be a good listener when their spouse speaks. Remember the wisdom of Proverbs 15:1, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” The partner who brings up the problem must avoid the appearance of verbally and emotionally assaulting their spouse. Gottman calls this a “softened startup.” The other person should try to put themselves in their spouse’s shoes and avoid adopting a defensive posture.
Here is a sample conversation showing how to argue with your spouse:
(Modeled after an example in Gottman’s book, “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.”)
Julie: Could I get you to help with the dishes after each meal?
Mark: (on the defensive) Hey, I always rinse off my own plate, cup, and silverware, and put them in the dishwasher.
Julie: (repair attempt) I know and believe me, I really do appreciate it.
Mark: OK. (He is relaxed now because he doesn’t feel like Julie is on the attack)
Julie: The sink does get pretty full, though, over the course of the week …
Mark: You know, I guess I don’t really pay much attention.
Julie: In all honesty, you don’t spend nearly as much time in the kitchen as I do. (she laughs) You don’t think we have magical house fairies that come in to do all the after dinner cleanup, do you?
Mark: You never know. (laughs) If there’s a dish in the cupboard when I need one I don’t really worry about how it got there.
Julie: (laughs) I suppose that makes sense. Dishes aren’t a high priority for you. But you know I do get kind of tired of fixing meals and having to do all of the clean-up afterward while everyone else goes and does their own thing.
Mark: I never thought about that. I can see how that would get old after a while.
Julie: Do you think you could help by at least unloading the dishwasher sometimes or even washing the small dishes while I take care of the pots and pans?
Mark: Sure! I suppose I could help with the after-dinner cleanup more often.
The Better Way to Fight: The Softened Startup
Mark and Julie have argued about doing the dishes before. However, it didn’t turn into a fight this time because they did not charge into the fray like opponents facing off in a boxing match. As previously mentioned, Gottman’s research shows that absence of bad feelings does not necessarily make for a healthy marriage. What makes for healthy marriages is that spouses do not escalate a bad situation, making it worse. A minor argument every now and then is not necessarily a bad sign; it may mean that you are addressing real problems in your marriage.
To prevent potential disagreements from becoming major blowups, it is important to remember that love is an action rather than merely a feeling. “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.” (Proverbs 17:17) It may be tough to love your husband or wife in the middle of a heated conversation, but this does not make it less important to behave in a loving manner. You have to remind yourself that while doing what Christ commands is rarely easy, it is always helpful and good.
Because they understood that love is an action, Julie and Mark were able to handle this old argument well. Instead of an opening shot about how Mark always fails to help with the kitchen work, Julie made it clear that she was not interested in attacking him. Mark did not get defensive but paid attention to Julie’s point of view because he did not feel threatened by Julie. Humor encourages genuine affection and defuses resentment. Both parties attempt to view the issue from the other person’s vantage point. They may not come to come to complete agreement with their spouse, but they do not try to demean or belittle the other’s opinion.
Christian Counseling for Couples with Marital Conflict
Bringing up uncomfortable issues with your spouse can be a real challenge. You feel hurt and frustrated, and it only gets worse when it appears that your spouse is disregarding your feelings. On the other hand, sympathizing with your husband or wife’s complaints about things that you don’t think are that important can also be a struggle. Learning how to navigate tension-filled situations with your spouse without allowing the situation to escalate into a full-blown fight is critical for a healthy marriage. Consider making an appointment with a Christian marriage counselor to talk about how you and your spouse can improve your conflict management. They will use therapeutic techniques and Biblical principles to help your marriage last.
“Bridging the Couple Chasm” by John Gottman, Ph.D. and Julie Schwartz Gottman, Ph.D.Photos
“Pier,” courtesy of Stephen Crowley, unsplash.com, Public Domain License; “Girl with Scarf,” courtesy of greekfood-tamystika, pixabay.com, CC0 Public Domain License; “Dishes,” courtesy of Jennifer Burk, unsplash.com, Public Domain License