Fighting in marriage can release steam that could blow up later.
When married couples fight, is it a sign of a crumbling marriage? As it turns out, there can actually be a healthy space between conflict and resolution, and that it’s how we fight that really matters.
Studio 5 Marriage & Family Contributor Dr. Liz Hale helps us “fight the good fight,” and leverage better conflict for a better connection.
5 Ways Fighting in Marriage Can Lead to Connection
Fighting is not necessarily a bad thing. The term “fight” has a vast definition from a squabble to a court battle. Squabbles have been known to even save a marriage, like releasing steam to prevent the marriage kettle from blowing up. Ultimately, it brings greater peace as couples learn more about each other, themselves, and the simple things that matter to their marriage.
A good fight is more than dealing with arguments and disagreements. It is about fighting for the life you want, and fighting for the relationship you want.
“Fighting the Good Fight” comes from Christian religion, deeply rooted in morality. Someone who is fighting the good fight is working hard to make good choices and helps others do the same.
We don’t want to fight against our marriage, we want to fight for it.
What is at the foundation of a good fight? Plenty of heart.
H = HUMILITY
Take ownership. It is not a matter of who is at fault. We each need to be responsible for our own reaction. Even if 99% of the problems in your marriage are his/her fault, show humility for the 1% that is yours. Working on the 1% will do more for your marriage than complaining about the 99% over which you have no power.
A wife I know recovering from her husband’s various affairs really struggled to see the 1% that belonged to her. But when she relinquished control of that 1% and owned the cruel words she had once hurled at her husband, it began to change everything. Especially in her. Humbling herself and requesting forgiveness for her reactions helped her become more at peace with her side of the street, and less paralyzed by his side.
E = EMPATHY
Imagine yourself in your partner’s shoes. Empathy requires listening. God gave us a mouth that closes and ears that don’t.
Dr. John Gottman has the famous line, “Baby, when you’re hurting; the whole world stops, and I listen!”
In marriage therapy, instead of asking each partner to tell me how they feel about a recent argument, I often ask each person to tell me what their partner feels about a recent argument. It is insightful for them to hear where misunderstandings lie.
Yesterday, a couple was going over the bumpy details of having the husband’s niece live with them while she attends college. After learning that her aunt often says “no” to her requests, this young woman began solely turning to her uncle, when, for instance, she wanted to borrow the car or stay out late. Reluctantly, in our session, the husband took a stab at what the wife was feeling: “I think you are feeling jealous of our niece.” The wife completely disagreed, adding that the only person she was mad at was him! Then she shared a memory that had just popped into her mind. One day she had asked her husband if he had a minute for her in the middle of the workday in his home office. He replied, “I only have a minute since I am preparing a presentation.” Shortly thereafter, the niece came bouncing into his office requesting a ride to a friend’s house. Her uncle jumped up from his chair, happily agreeing to do so, saying, “I really need a break.”
Bottomline: Feeling jealous of her niece didn’t resonate with her but feeling hurt by her husband did. That changed their fight song from uh-uh to aha! Words matter. While she wasn’t feeling jealous of their niece, she was hurt by her husband for treating their niece with greater consideration.
A = APOLOGIES
In this same session we just discussed, when the husband saw the situation regarding the niece from his wife’s eyes, the lightbulb went on and he felt remorseful. He could truly see how the wife would reason that she got the short end of the attention stick. Before, all his mind could see was his wife’s jealousy (which really concerned him, by the way.) When he listened, he learned. When she accepted his apology, she felt healed.
R = RESPECT
Be radically responsible for respecting your partner even when your partner may not be making sense. Do your best to hit pause until you can glean more understanding.
We all have enduring vulnerabilities, events from the past that create an emotional wound that can be activated and re-lived in real time. The past becomes the present in these moments. One couple I know, Juan and Julie, had gone camping with their 6-year-old daughter, Jade. One early morning, they had all gone on a hike together. Julie and Jade were just slightly ahead of Juan. Suddenly Juan hollered out to Julie, “Look out for that Yellow Jacket!” which was buzzing right over 6-year-old Jade’s head. Julie couldn’t comprehend what Juan was yelling about quickly enough, and suddenly Jade was stung by the Yellow Jacket. Juan lost his mind, calling Julie “a terrible mother.” (Which absolutely wasn’t true. Julie knew it and she knew that Juan knew it.)
Since flooded reactions are so intense and seemingly out of the blue, it is confusing to couples about what is actually happening. When we can begin to understand that flooding occurs when deeply enduring vulnerabilities are triggered, then we will be less likely to misinterpret the reaction as “crazy” or “overly sensitive.”
It turns out that Juan was the middle child raised in a family of 7 children, and he often felt overlooked and even neglected. At the age of 8, he felt that nobody noticed he didn’t have a coat that fit him when the winter school season started. He vowed that one day when had children they would never go without.
We fight at the age we were when we felt wounded. When you remind yourself that a five-or ten-year-old is talking to you, your upset partner, it’s a lot easier to be patient and understanding. The child talking to you wants to be heard and needs to feel safe.
Trust yourself and your partner that you can both learn new ways of conveying preferences versus irritations.
A husband that I work with is the chef at home. He owns a restaurant and is very particular about the setting of his kitchens at both work and home.
He thought his wife would eventually catch on that large bowls and pots and pans are to always be washed by hand; never put in the dishwasher. And fruit that comes home from the grocery store should be taken out of its plastic bags before storing in the refrigerator bins.
He decided to try a new concept one day after his wife returned home from grocery shopping. Before she even unpacked the groceries, he gently turned to her and asked,
“Hey, Love, are you open to learning something new about me?” She was delightfully open to learning something new about him. He then explained his preferences for the fruit and the pots and pans. She was really grateful to know these details…..she had no idea about some of his preferences in the kitchen simply because he muttered them under his breath instead of sharing them directly to avoid a possible fight.
Dr. Liz Hale is the Studio 5 Family and Marriage Contributor. She is passionate about helping relationships survive and thrive! She works hard on keeping her own relationships healthy and strong. But don’t stand in her way of a daily, sanity-maintaining brisk walk (just ask her husband, Ben!).