Most people have a notion of marital bliss that imagines us always happy and “in love.” We can be quite shocked and perturbed when this image comes up against the reality of married life. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with that original notion of married life, and it is something that we should aspire to. But it needs to be balanced against what real life looks like.
What happens when we get married, truly believing we are with someone with whom we have a tremendous amount in common and with whom we get along harmoniously, only to discover that we disagree a lot? What do we do when we discover early on in our marriage that we are capable of arguments, and that these can get bitter and confrontational? How do we deal with our bubble bursting, facing now the reality that we may have an imperfect union? We are afraid to admit this to our parents or other close people, as this feels deeply embarrassing – but we are also not sure we want to admit this to ourselves.
Some Arguing in Marriage is Normal
We are all entitled to idealized notions of marriage, but we must be honest about what most marriages are really like. Couples disagree. They are different people, and are not g0ing to see eye to eye on everything. Couples – even the happiest and most compatible – are able to “fall out” from time to time. People have a bad day (monthly period, terrible day at the office, etc.), and they react in unconstructive ways. It does not feel good, but it does not mean the sky is falling down.
So, there will be disagreement, but should one react to them? Avoiding disagreement by “keeping your mouth shut” is not a recipe for a successful marriage. We do not have to go looking for an argument, but we need to be able to express our opinion. People who, in order to avoid conflict, repress their views or avoid communication are at much greater risk of marriage problems than those who argue it out. If you feel wronged, you are best saying so. If you believe your spouse is making a serious mistake, you should say so.
Here is what we know about couples arguing. It is not the disagreement that harms the marriage, but the conflictual behaviors that people often bring into it. A couple can dispute and disagree civilly, with no harm to the marriage whatsoever. But people are generally poor arguers, and they slide into a range of hurtful communication styles that undermine their marriage. In contact sports, there is an expectation that player will occasionally get hurt. What is demanded is that player “fight clean” and eschew tactics that are “not in the spirit of the game.” Same with marriage.
Extensive research has shown that couples that argue a lot are no more likely to have unstable marriages or to get divorced than couples who argue little. This is because, as said, the argument is not the problem. Couples who do have marital problems are those that argue in ways that undermine trust and intimacy. Couples with good marriages know how to ensure an argument stays on point and always is brought to a healthy place.
The evidence suggests that couples who go on to have a long and happy marriage know how to restore the relationship when it is harmed by offensive or insensitive words. No one is suggesting that such hurtful words are okay, but the real damage is caused by not knowing how to deal with the aftermath. If we are being truthful, we need to admit that unfortunately all couples will hurt each other over time. The question is whether we know how to repair the damage.
Often Based on Misunderstandings
There some very good book written on communication and conflict in marriage. Many are well worth the read. We will only be able to summarize some key points in this chapter. As is the case with any issue in a relationship, it is important not to ignore it, as it will most likely not go away. It is worth taking the time to better understand where it is coming from, and what could be done to get a better outcome. Here are some major points for you to think about and better familiarize yourself with.
Communication between men and women
Deborah Tannen has written excellent books about the differences in communication between men and women. She expertly shows how miscommunications arise. She bases her views on years of research into communication styles. She argues that men and women see conversation in completely different ways. For women, the main essence of communication is connection, whereas as for men it is about imparting useful information.
Whereas women tend to view conversation as primarily about building rapport, men mostly use it to establish their authority. Some have balked at such a crude distinction between men and women, and they make the argument that there are plenty of difference between men and between women. Still, there is something really useful in considering this idea.
If men and women view conversation different, it would explain why there is so much miscommunication between the genders. A common example is when the woman is complaining about the lingering effects of a medical procedure. She is most likely seeking empathy by doing so, while her husband assumes that she has a problem and suggests a solution. The woman often feels that her feelings are not respected. The man is often confused by her reaction, and is unclear why his wife is talking about this if she is not looking to change anything.
Men are far more likely to interrupt another speaker, and tend not to take it personally when they are themselves interrupted, while women are more likely to finish each other’s sentences. In a marital situation, this can give rise to conflict. Communication problems are often the result of gender differences. Familiarize yourself with this matter, and you will gain a much better idea of why your spouse communicates in a particular way.
Hysteria is never a good thing. It is especially unhelpful when there is most likely nothing to be hysterical about. In our case, it can make things a whole lot worse. Let us assume that you really do have a problem: The communication is awry, arguing is common, and you are very unhappy. With a moderate amount of awareness-raising and support, you can “turn this ship around.” If you are newly married, you probably have not had the chance to really mess thing up yet!
Know that this is an issue that most likely can be easily resolved. You may be able to do it on your own or you may need help, but it is most likely highly manageable. Besides for ignoring the issue, the worst thing you could do is treat your marriage like it is on its last legs and about to totter over. Unless your situation is genuinely extreme, it would not be advisable to get too down on your relationship.
A common issue in relationships is the way that people address their needs in a complaining or critical manner, rather than effectively conveying their wishes. If your communication issues surround how you interact on day-to-day matters, then Nonviolent (or compassionate) Communication developed by Marshall Rosenberg, may be useful. He asks for people to communicate about their needs in a non-confrontational manner, by focusing on identifying and expressing their own and other people’s needs.
Rosenberg believes that most conflict arises from miscommunication about their true human needs, which are often masked in demands or judgmental language. It encourages an empathetic approach that engages participants in communication to clarify their needs, their feelings, their perceptions, and their requests, and seek the same of others. Doing so enables the discovery of strategies that allows each party’s needs to be met.
According to this approach, people need to express themselves in objective, neutral terms, using factual observations rather than judgmental language. Self-expression follows four basic steps:
1. Making the neutral observation: ‘You were home late on Monday and Wednesday this week.’
2. Expressing the feeling without any justification or interpretation: ‘I feel quite worried when you are later than normal …’
3. Expressing needs: ‘… and I have a real need to know that you are safe.’
4. Making a clear, feasible request: ‘Would it be possible for you to text or phone me, just to say you’ll be home at 9 or 10?’
In response to this clarity of communication, partners should feel empathy with the speaker’s feelings and needs and respond positively to the request. Sometimes, the arguments are caused by the way we come across, rather what we asking for or saying. If so, this approach is highly effective is taking away the sting from daily interactions.
Having a “good” argument
John Gottman is one of the world’s leading experts on marriage and in his books, he talks extensively about arguments. After twenty years of research, he concluded that arguments are not the problem, it is the manner in which we handle them that is. It is the way that “play dirty”, stooping to tactics that harm the relationship in order to gain an edge in a dispute. Without going into all the details, people will use insults to get their way.
The other person is labeled “dumb” for not seeing sense or is termed “obnoxious” for not ceding ground in the argument. Once we start hurling insults, the argument become personal. A red line has been crossed. We are not trying to debate a point; we are now trying to undermine the other. It is not hard to see how this is harmful to the marriage.
The biggest problem is that this sort of behavior is a slippery slope. If we are willing to use insults as a battering ram to win an argument, then it is only a short journey towards delegitimizing the other. If you can question their intelligence or decency, why not go all-out and destroy their character? Why not tell him that him that, “he is just like his father, a complete loser,” or “I wish I had never met you; you are the worst thing that happened to me.”
This is devastating to the marriage. Even if an apology is given, the sting may last for a long time. If the conversation gets this toxic, it can lead to one or both spouses stonewalling, namely clamming up and self-isolating. The couple turn cold on each other and the love withers.
Gottman sets out in detail how to have a “good” argument, by which he means a clean, respectful, and constructive exchange of views. Never make it personal. Never insult. Never get away from the actual issue. Never widen the discussion to include every past incident. Leave his or her family and friends out of it. Do not criticize the person; critique the ideas being expressed. Regardless of how provoked you may be, under no circumstances should you resort to character assassination.
There is much more than this to be said, but the essence is to be more attentive to how arguments are conducted and to stick to the issue and maintain courtesy and respect. This makes it a lot easier to return to a close, loving relationship once the argument is done.