I used to think that fighting in marriage doesn’t exist in a healthy relationship. When my husband and I were dating, most of our friends and acquaintances would laugh at how alike we were and even comment that we were the male and female version of each other. I remember it only took a few months of marriage before I had the thought, “We are not alike at all!” I soon found that although we had similar personalities, we had different opinions and ways of doing things in many areas. For example,
my husband is a clean freak. I’m not that way. I like things clean, but I tend to be…”organizationally challenged.” If I get too involved in a project and the house hasn’t had a deep cleaning recently, my husband gets a case of the “grumpies.”
I despise being late to most things and my husband is…a “free spirit” with no sense of time. His “I’ll be home in 10 minutes” typically ends up being at least an hour…and this has festered quite a few cases of the “grumpies” in myself.
My husband is frugal to the core, and I’m a super saver…that likes to spend money. I find amazing deals on almost everything we own and rarely pay full price for anything, but I like to have the freedom to spend, and my husband would be happy if we lived on cold cereal for all 3 meals and never spent (he never once took me to dinner while we were dating, which was both amazing and irritating). Our differences in handling money have at times caused the “grumpies” in both of us.
I could go on, but you get the point. We have our differences, and most couples do. For us this has caused plenty of arguments and fights. I remember thinking after our first major fight, “Oh no, our marriage is on the rocks!” I was heartbroken that we had gotten so upset with each other, and was sure that all other marriages were far more perfect than ours. And then that very same morning (we still weren’t getting along), we ran into an older gentleman in our neighborhood who exclaimed, “You two are the perfect example of what marriage is supposed to be, I can tell that you are just so happy together and I love to observe you.” At first I was caught off guard, “How did we fool him” I thought? We didn’t even feel like we liked each other at the moment he said this. And then it hit me: yes, we fight and usually about silly things; but we also get over things fairly quickly and we love each other a lot. And I remembered an article that I studied in college titled, “What Makes Marriage Work” by John Gottman. It talks a lot about fighting in marriage and how healthy it can be for a marriage if it is done in a healthy way. I highly recommend you read it, but if you don’t have time, here’s a little overview:
When Fighting in Marriage is Good
The article mentioned a study of 200 couples over the space of twenty years. What was surprising about this study was that it wasn’t whether or not there was a lot of fighting in marriage that determined a happy and stable marriage over the years; rather, it was how they fought and what the ratio was for positive to negative interaction. In fact, fighting and conflict can sometimes be one of the healthiest things for a marriage. One of my favorite things that he said concerning fighting in marriage was:
In other words, fighting doesn’t determine the health of a marriage, it’s how often you have positive interactions with each other compared to how often you fight. One of my most memorable “fights” with my husband occurred a little less than a year ago. I don’t remember what we were fighting about, all I remember is that we both got very angry at each other and said some things we regretted. Because of how badly we felt about what we had said, we made up fairly quickly and I remember we both made it a point to strongly express our love for each other to make up for what was said. This would not have happened without the fight, and yet I treasure that experience.
In this article, Gottman described that all couples fight and resolve issues in different ways. He outlined 3 different styles of conflict resolving that couples tend to use:
Validating: These couples tend to compromise often and typically in a calm manner
Volatile: These couples tend to “erupt” at each other, tend to fight frequently and can have “passionate” disputes.
Conflict-Avoiding: These “couples agree to disagree, rarely confronting their differences head-on.”
What was surprising to read, was that none of these “styles” of conflict resolving ended up being more “healthy” or “destructive” than the other. In other words, all three styles bode equally well in the overall health of a marriage.
So what makes some marriages end in divorce?
More than half of marriages end in divorce, with an even higher rate for second marriages. Gottman concluded that “As long as there is five times as much positive feeling and interaction between husband and wife as there is negative, the marriage [is] likely to be stable over time.” Marriages that are headed for divorce do very little to compensate for the negative interactions that occur between them. They let negative thoughts take charge and allow criticism to replace respect and kindness. Fighting in marriage becomes a way to intentionally hurt your spouse.
Fighting in Marriage: 4 Warning Signs
Gottman listed what he called “Four Horsemen” or (warning signs) that start the downward spiral towards divorce or unhappy marriage. Remember, these “horsemen” can show up in healthy marriages as well, but it is when they started showing up repeatedly that you need to start making some changes before they suck all of the positive interaction out of your marriage.
1. CRITICISM: There is a difference between complaining in a marriage, and criticizing in a marriage. When you complain, you are pointing out a behavior that you are unhappy or disappointed about. When you criticize, you are attacking your spouse’s very character or personality. Complaints can be helpful to marriage as they lead to conflict-resolution, but Statements like, “All you care about is yourself,” or “You are a selfish jerk,” are very rarely helpful to a relationship and lead to the second, third and fourth horsemen if they take residence in a relationship for too long.
2. CONTEMPT: Contempt takes fighting in marriage to a whole new level. Contempt is different from criticism in that you now have the complete intention of insulting your spouse with your words or actions. You purposely think of something hurtful to say and have a hard time remembering why you love this person in the first place. Admiration, compliments, and attraction have a hard time existing amidst contempt, and sarcasm or hostile humor become most comfortable form of communication. Contempt can also occur through your body language: sneering, rolling your eyes or refusing eye contact.
3. DEFENSIVENESS: At this point neither couple is willing to take responsibility for their actions, and instead focus all of their energy on defending themselves. No matter what, each plead innocent and marital troubles increase as conflicts cannot be resolved in this way. Couples spend all of their time making up excuses, repeating themselves (rather than listening), and make negative assumptions about the other person: “You could care less about me.” If a complaint comes up, the other spouse comes up with an equal complaint to match it. To get yourself out of the pit of defensiveness, try actively listening to your spouse and sincerely try to understand how he/she feels. Surprise them with your open-ness with phrases like, “go on, ” or “I didn’t know you were feeling that way.” There is a much lower chance of criticism presenting itself if your partner feels you are making every attempt to understand or empathize.
4. STONEWALLING: Communication comes to a hault at this point. One or both partners pull themselves from the conversation and refuses to respond. One partner usually ends up venting their frustration while the other takes on a “stony” face and refuses to listen. Stonewalling is very upsetting to the other partner, especially if it is a husband stonewalling his wife. Women tend to be more deeply hurt and offended when they are stonewalled by their husbands.
Fighting in Marriage: How to Save a Relationship
If your marriage has been infiltrated with these horsemen, all is not over. You can turn things positive again but it will take some work. You will need to train your mind to find the positive again. Here are some tips that Gottman gave:
My husband and I like to look back and laugh at some of the arguments that we have had over the years. They are part of our story and some of them have been crucial to our growing love and appreciation for each other. I love my husband for his humble and forgiving heart and I’m grateful for the journey we have had thus far. We both still have a lot to learn 🙂
What are some things you love about your husband?
Source: What Makes Marriage Work, by John Gottman