One of the most surprising things about being married can be the fights. I think most people figure that in a good marriage there isn't much fighting. Or at least if there is fighting that things get resolved. Neither are necessarily actually true. Dr. John Gottman, a famous couple's researcher, put couples in a research lab that was set up like an apartment and videotaped their interactions for an entire weekend. He collected lots of data on couples and followed up with them years later. Some of the things that he learned are that most couples fight, that fighting does not predict happiness in the marriage (or divorce) and that about 2/3 of what we fight about never gets resolved.
If you had told me that before I got married I might not have made it down the aisle. It just doesn't sound that encouraging.
But in the end I think for those of us who want to stay married we need to face up to these facts. That fighting doesn't have to be bad. It doesn't have to hurt the relationship. It also doesn't have to, nor should it, go on for hours and hours and ruin the rest of our day/night/weekend/vacation. And in the end there cannot, I repeat there cannot, be a winner and a loser. In a properly conducted marital fight there can only be a compromise on both sides. Anything else is heading for dark waters and eventual Splitsville.
I recently came across a great article in Esquire Magazine in their "Hitched" section (yes, I read everything, even Esquire). The article, entitled A Philosophy of Fighting, by Tom Junod, talked about how fighting is inevitable in relationships. Now, being nerdy I feel the need to point out that there are relationships in which people don't fight. Some of those relationship are healthy and some are not. Remember fighting does not indicate health or un-health or staying together or getting divorced. It's HOW the fighting is done that predicts those things. Fighting dirty = misery > divorce. Fighting fair = 50% misery + 50% bliss > celebrating 50+ wedding anniversaries.
Junod says "You never fail to be surprised by [the fights] and you never fail to be amazed that your marriage has survived them." I would add that you also never fail to be surprised that you are having the same dang fight about the same dang thing yet again. But, as Junod points out, if you are committed to the marriage you stay the course. "You know couples who called it quits after the first big fight, because they didn't like what they saw in the other person when they were fighting, and they particularly didn't like what they saw in themselves....Now you see their point. The first fight is the same as the second fight, and the second fight is the same as the last. If you want to stay married, you don't have to be able to stop fighting; you have to be able to keep fighting, in the same way. When you see elderly couples, you are amazed by the durability not only of their love but also of their animus — because from what you know of marriage, you know they are still fighting." So it's about changing our perspectives on what that long-term bliss looks like. When you see that elderly couple sitting on the park bench together and they seem so serene just picture her throwing his dirty socks at him because he's been leaving them on the floor for the last 50 years. Or picture him chastising her for riding the breaks or not using her turn signal. You get the picture.
Junod also points out something that is too often overlooked. If you were to conduct an autopsy of a deceased relationship it might surprise you to see the actual origin of the demise. It often happens long before "the big one" where someone drops the Divorce bomb. It starts with the small ones, the ones that don't seem too serious. As Junod puts it, "You think that some fights are trivial, because they are over trivial matters....[but] there are no trivial fights, because each fight has the potential to grow into the kind of fight that ends your marriage." I often find that people don't understand the care that relationships need to stay afloat. They feel free to dig deep into each other during fights about things like chores or vacation locations, really letting the nuclear warheads deploy over things that simply should not be worth that kind of damage. People seem to forget that our relationships need care and love and nurturance and that they cannot survive continued bombing and plundering. Each argument needs to be conducted with the rules in mind. No winners, no losers, no prisoners and no nuclear weapons. Period.
Here Junod and I agree again "A fight to the finish is what finishes a marriage. That's because over the course of married life, people supply their spouses with precisely what's required to finish them off. The question is not who can win, because anyone can win if they're willing to go far enough — if they're willing to win at the cost of love and respect. The question is who can abstain from winning, who can resist the temptation of winning, which, like any other marital temptation, is always there."
Or, as I try to tell couples that I work with "you can be right or you can be close". When being right takes precedence over being emotionally close and happy with your partner it may be time to re-evaluate your commitment to your marriage. You really can't have it all in that department. But hopefully you can discover that being close feels so much better in the long run than just being right in that moment. And remember, if you are anything like those couples studied by Gottman you are going to have that same argument over and over again anyway. So even if you "win" this time, you may lose the next. In the end it's just not worth it. Play nice. Follow the rules. Give ground. And stay close.
Krista Jordan, Ph.D., ABPP
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