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Fight Fair! How to Engage in Healthy Conflict with Your Spouse

You and your spouse may spend most of your days living side by side in peaceful harmony, but every couple comes to a crossroads at some point that sparks a confrontation. The key to a healthy, happy marriage isn’t whether or not you argue, but how you argue.

Timing is everything.

Unleashing a litany of demands or criticisms on your spouse the minute he walks through the door is an example of what experts call a “harsh startup.”

“Harsh startup is something people can do that will immediately close down the openness in the relationship. It makes the argument less effective for providing resolution,” says Dr. Jill Thorne, a psychologist and marriage therapist. “Harsh startup is one of the big mistakes that doesn’t set the tone well.”

Soften your tone and approach the discussion in a way that doesn’t feel like a guerrilla attack. That might mean postponing the discussion until after dinner when you and your spouse aren’t hungry, tired and in the midst of dinnertime chaos – a time when emotions may already be running high.

“[Also] avoid talking through a touchy subject if other people are around or if you are rushing out the door getting ready to go somewhere with your little ones,” Thorne says.

Listen.

Refusing to acknowledge or validate your partner’s perspective can escalate the argument and spin it into a direction of extreme reactions and low blows. On the other hand, listening to your spouse with an open mind will help him feel heard. “When we can put our own agenda on hold, the other person feels validated and understood, usually squelching the fight,” says Adrienne Dreher, professional family counselor.

Although conflict is scary, airing grievances in a nonabusive way helps us negotiate our needs and understand each other’s perspective. Often couples avoid conflict because they are naturally passive in how they communicate, feel insecure about how to assert their needs or feel intimidated by the other person. Other times, they dismiss an argument before a resolution has been reached.

“If there is not a resolution, they can start to feel resentful deep down and start to build distance emotionally,” Thorne says.

If you feel too overwhelmed and stressed to continue an emotionally-charged disagreement, tell your spouse that you need to take a break. But, agree on a time when you can come back to the discussion.

Arguing in front of kids.

Many couples strive to keep the peace around their kids, but experts say kids can learn from witnessing a healthy disagreement, as long as the issue isn’t too intimate in nature.

“For a lot of the everyday conflict areas for couples, it’s good and smart and healthy to allow the kids to see some of that,” Thorne says. “Children learn mostly through social role modeling. They can learn how to discuss when they are feeling angry or hurt, which is important for their future relationships.”

If your child becomes frightened or upset by an argument between you and your spouse, stop and reassure her, says Thorne. You might say: “We’re just talking through something we don’t agree on. It will be okay.”

Warmth and affection between you and your spouse following an argument shows your child that even when you have disagreed, you still care about each other.

Repair and forgive.

Make efforts to repair any emotional fallout and forgive each other.

“Be able to apologize or say you are sorry in some sort of way, whether it’s saying, ‘I want to hear what you are saying;’ ‘Let me say that again in a better way.’ ‘I know I was harsh about that when I first brought it up,’” says Karen Irick, LCSW, a marriage counselor.

Asking for a break during an argument is also a form of repair.

“One couple I knew had a ritual,” Irick says. “She would get really emotional and blow up. He was afraid to bring anything back up again. One of the things she would do would come and touch his shoulder to signal: ‘I’m ready to calmly discuss this. And we’re okay.’”

Enable the air bag.

When the foundation of your marriage is strong, disagreements aren’t as threatening to a partnership.

Show affection and offer small, yet thoughtful acts of kindness toward each other. Spend time together doing activities you both enjoy to avoid complacency and emotional distance. Date each other, flirt and remember what brought you together in the first place. Check in with each other during the day. Look for marriage retreats and other opportunities to reconnect with each other.

Finally, consult with a third party if you continue to rehash old disagreements or have trouble fighting fairly. A trained therapist can help you establish healthier communication patterns.

“The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (Predictors of divorce)

  • Criticism – attributing negative personality traits to your partner. “You never help out around here. You are so selfish.”
  • Defensiveness – self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood. “It’s not my fault that we’re always broke. You’re the one who always spends all the money.”
  • Contempt – greatest predictor of divorce. Insults, name-calling, mockery and hostile body language like rolling your eyes and sneering.
  • Stonewalling – emotional withdrawal from the interaction.

Source: The Gottman Institute, gottman.com.

Rewarding Reads

  • Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by Dr. John Gottman
  • Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix
  • The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman