"You're trying to change me," Leslie blurted as we sat down for dinner.
"What are you talking about?" I demanded with as much piety and surprise as I could muster. Truth be told, I knew exactly what she was talking about. I was trying to change her. She knew it. I knew it. I just didn't want her to know that I knew. It had been tense in our little apartment ever since we got home from work. The issue? Who knows. It happened more than 25 years ago. All I recall is that I'd made some inane comment about not being able to find something I could always find in my kitchen growing up.
"I'm talking about the way you make snippy comments," Leslie said as she tried to restrain her tears. "No matter what I do, it's not good enough."
"That's not true," I said defensively. "Give me one good example of how I'm critical." That was a mistake. For the next several minutes, she'd give a specific example, and I'd attempt to show exactly how reasonable my critical comment was. It was a game of mental pingpong that no one would win. Actually, it was a fight — our first fight as a married couple.
Finally, Leslie said something to end the tiresome bout. "The point is, I'm trying to be a good wife, and I feel like I'm disappointing you."
"You're not disappointing me," I responded in an attempt to keep her from crying. But it was too late to prevent her tears. I sat helpless, not knowing what to do or where to go.
Leslie, on the other hand, knew exactly where she wanted to go — back home. Sitting in that tiny apartment in the middle of Los Angeles, beginning graduate school as well as a marriage, Leslie wanted nothing more than to be somewhere safe and sound. We both did.
We'll be honest — Leslie and I still have fights. But thankfully, they are less frequent and more productive than they used to be. And in the 25 years since that first real fight, we've learned a lot about finding safe, common ground when the fur starts to fly. Here's what we've learned:
Conflict can be good for your marriage
One of the thoughts that went through Leslie's mind when we had our first fight in that tiny kitchen was that there must be something wrong with us — that loving couples don't fight. We've since learned that this simply isn't true.
Consider the reasons for marital spats. First, people are not perfect — and neither is the world we live in. While it makes logical sense that there are no perfect marriages, many of us are still surprised when we encounter conflict and expect our marriage to be different. Another factor that adds fuel to the fire of marital fights is the human tendency to resist compromise. Every day, couples have individual desires, big and small, that collide. A compromise is needed if they are ever going to resolve their conflict. Yet for most people, compromise is difficult and conflict is thus inevitable.
But the goal of marriage is not to avoid conflict. Not by a long shot. If handled correctly, conflict can help build a stronger marriage. In fact, we've come to believe that conflict is the price smart couples pay for a deepening sense of intimacy. Conflict helps us peel away the superficial layers of a relationship and discover who we really are. When Ruth Graham was asked if she and her famous husband, Billy, ever fight, she said, "I hope so. Otherwise we would have no differences, and life would be pretty boring."
No matter how deeply a man and woman love each other, they will encounter conflict. It's a natural component of every healthy marriage. The truth is that buried conflict has a high rate of resurrection. If something is bothering one of you, it is always best to put it out on the table and discuss it. So don't bury your differences. Instead, view them as a potential source for cultivating a deeper sense of intimacy. Of course, to do this, you must learn to fight fair.
Seeing the world through your spouse's eyes makes a difference
Several years ago I was conducting a training seminar for elementary school teachers. To help them better understand the world of a third-grader, I gave them the assignment of walking through their classroom on their knees. "I always assumed students were viewing the classroom as I was," said one teacher. "It looks so different from their perspective."
We make the same error in marriage when we assume we know what our spouse is experiencing. We don't. Everyone interprets life from a composite of unique insights and perceptions. Only after entering our spouse's world with our heart and our head can we accurately understand his or her perspective. To look at life through the same lens means asking two questions: 1) What does this situation, problem or event look or feel like from my spouse's perspective? and 2) How is his or her perception different from mine? Accurately understanding your spouse's hurts and hopes will change you. Once you consciously feel his or her feelings and understand his or her perspective, you will see the world differently. And in the majority of cases, empathy is enough to bring a marital conflict to a screeching halt. It sets the stage for two simple words: "I'm sorry."
An apology can either hinder or help
When one partner blows it and the offense is minor (maybe someone forgets to put gas in the car after promising to do so), a graceful apology is all it takes for the incident to be dropped. At other times, an apology can be surprisingly complicated.
Like lots of couples, one husband and wife we worked with would regularly short-circuit their arguments with hasty apologies. "I said I was sorry for what I did," one of them would say. "Now why can't you forget about it and move on?"
This form of apology is really a tool of manipulation. It's a way of getting off the hook and avoiding the real issue. What's worse, a premature apology blocks real change. One husband snapped at his wife at a dinner party. Later he said, "I'm sorry, but look, you have to understand that I've been under a lot of stress lately." The husband was avoiding responsibility for his insensitive behavior. What his wife needed to hear was, "I'm sorry. It isn't right to lash out at you when I'm stressed." This would have communicated that her husband understood he had hurt her and would try not to do it again.
All couples need a healing mechanism, a way to turn a new page in marriage. Knowing how and when to say you're sorry can make a big difference. Ask yourself when and how you apologize. Does one of you apologize more than the other? Do you use apologies to whitewash issues? A sincere apology will leave you with a relieved sense of the air being cleared and a renewed feeling of closeness.
Staying focused on the problem is more likely to lead to a resolution
Remember to attack the problem, not the person. Our natural impulse during conflict is to defend and protect our position, not to accommodate the other person. If you accuse your spouse of always making you late, she is probably not going to say, "Oh, you're right. I'll be different from now on." She is more likely to tell you that you only make it worse by pressuring her or that you are too impatient or a hundred other reasons why she is not at fault. You will be far more productive if you focus on the problem of being late and work together, as a team, to devise a way of avoiding it. In other words, separate the problem from the person.
If we were to sum up fighting fair in a single word, it would be cooperate. You must be willing to flex and yield to your spouse. Scripture says, "Wisdom . . . is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere" (James 3:17). If you cultivate a cooperative attitude with your spouse, you will save yourself and your marriage a lot of unnecessary grief. And you will have found the secret to fighting a good fight.
Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott are New York Times best-selling authors and the founders of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University.
Tips for Fighting Fair
- Start your sentences with "I" instead of "You" — "I feel frustrated when we're late" is easier to hear than "You always make us late."
- Keep your fighting away from your kids — unless you model how to resolve it in front of them.
- Stay clear of "character assassination" — don't assign negative labels to each other (e.g., "You're so lazy").
- If you need a timeout, take it — but agree on when you'll come back.
- Avoid expressing contempt by rolling your eyes or being sarcastic — it's toxic to your relationship.
For more on fighting fair, watch Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott at "Improving Conflict Resolution."For more on fighting fair in marriage, see Dr. Juli Slattery's article, Fighting Fair and Dr. Greg Smalley's How Fighting Can Help Your Marriage.