~ without killing your marriage ~
We never used to fight. I presumed we never would, we were so compatible. And then came a time when all we did was fight.
Turns out we had both been suppressing issues and emotions, and eventually it all came raging out.
So fighting with your husband, or at least arguing, can be good, maybe even necessary. So long as it’s done the right way: fighting not to win, but for your relationship.
understand your purpose
Are you fighting to punish him? To wallow in self-righteous indignation? To prove you are right and he is wrong (again)? Any of these and it’s not going to end well. You may gain a short term victory, but your spouse will hold a long term resentment, and your relationship will pay the price. The cycle will never end.
The purpose is to resolve the issue in a way that will strengthen your relationship. You’re fighting for your marriage.
There is increasing evidence that the difference between fights that clear the air, and fights that damage the relationship, is whether each partner feels they have been heard and understood by the other. You don’t have to agree with his opinion (often you won’t). But you do have to hear it AND show him you’ve heard.
what are you fighting about?
There’s no point yelling at him for not unloading the dishwasher when really you’re fuming about something he said two days ago. Men are very literal; he’ll try to fix the problem with the dishwasher without any clue about what’s really bugging you. Nothing will be resolved because you’re fighting about different things.
So be clear (in your own mind first, and then to him) what you’re arguing about. Is it this particular instance of domestic incompetence, or the bigger pattern of his general uselessness around the house.
stay on topic
Women are more likely than men to see the bigger relationship picture. Men tend not to cope with free-ranging arguments. You might link 3 different events into one larger pattern. You move the conversation from one event to the next, to the bigger picture, then back to something he said last year. Men will feel they’re being picked on for every little mistake they’ve ever made, and may eventually conclude there’s no point in trying anymore.
get to the point
A difference in communication styles can be a barrier to constructive arguing. The feminine style is more discursive, involving lots of detail, feelings and story-telling. He starts out attentive, waiting to hear about something he can fix. By the time you get to the point (in his view), he’ll have lost interest and zoned-out.
Just say it; “I’d like you to help more around the house. In particular, …”.
avoid high drama
Men are often caricatured as running for their caves whenever women get emotional (e.g. Men are from Mars). While this tendency is now thought to be exaggerated, it is usually true that one of the partners has a greater tendency to withdraw, and the other to pursue. And it’s the man that more commonly withdraws.
You might be surprised to read that men are more rapidly and forcefully overwhelmed by marital conflict than women, particularly when your emotions are on full display. At this point, our hearts are racing, our lizard brain floods us with signals of danger, and we literally lose the ability to think.
Retarded emotional creatures that we are, our usual response is to get away, to shut down and stonewall. Once we’ve reached this stage, nothing constructive will come out of further discussion. Take a long break. [There’s a good article on managing flooding here.]
listen, don’t think
Actually listen when he’s talking. Focus your attention on him, not what you’re feeling about him. Confirm what you’ve heard. Don’t tune out and rehearse your counterargument. Once he knows he’s been heard, a lot of his frustration and anger will fade away.
“I see where you’re coming from” is a powerful phrase you can both learn to use. It shows your partner they have indeed been heard AND it validates their point of view (without putting you in the wrong).
never cross boundaries
No matter how furious you are, nor how much he deserves it, be strong enough to maintain that last modicum of decency and respect. You might feel like killing him, but will end up killing your marriage.
Remember he’s your husband, the man you love, not a mortal enemy to be vanquished at any cost.
look for peace offerings
Successful couples will make small gestures that demonstrate they still love and respect each other, even when fighting. If he nervously reaches out to gently touch your arm, don’t recoil and shake him off.
Once, in the middle of a screaming match, my wife stuck out her tongue at me.
It was so outrageous and unexpected that I had no choice but to collapse in disbelieving laughter.
wrap it up
Come to some sort of resolution. Otherwise the fight will flare up again in the future, or lead to suppressed bitterness.
One common option is to compromise. This might be the best you can do in the circumstances, but it can risk neither of you feeling satisfied. If the outcome is to be one that disappoints you both, then it is even more important that you both feel heard and validated.
A more skillful outcome is to find a 3rd way, win-win solution. This requires creative thinking, and is more likely if you’re fighting as a team rather than as enemies.
Take a break. If you’re going round in circles, or it’s getting too heated, then call a time-out.
Finally, you can agree to disagree. Agreeing means not bringing up the subject again next week and having another go at persuading him he’s an idiot!
learn to be wrong
Value your relationship over being right i.e. learn to be wrong, learn to shut up, learn to apologize. Don’t worry that this will mean you will always be wrong, always be submissive. In the short term, you’ll have demonstrated your emotional maturity. If he’s worth having, he’ll learn from your example. Maybe next time he’ll be the first one to make peace.
Find something to apologize for, even if you’re sure you’re completely in the right. “Sorry for starting on you the minute you walked in the door”.
As the hilarious Tim Dowling says in How to Be a Husband:
In the context of marriage, a moral victory is something you’ll invariably end up celebrating on your own. If you’re going to get on in married life — if you’re going to have sex ever — you’ve got to learn how to lose an argument. And to do that, you’ve got to learn how to be wrong.