We all know couples who seem to bicker and spar all the time. Maybe you’re even part of a couple like that yourself.
Does constant conflict mean that a marriage is in trouble? My answer here might surprise you.
Through my work with many, many couples, I’ve seen that the frequency of your arguments with your spouse is much less important than the way you fight.
In fact, Dr. John Gottman, one of the leading researchers on marital happiness, says that how you manage conflict in your relationship is the most important factor in determining whether you stay married.
Gottman isn’t saying that your goal should be a conflict-free marriage. And neither am I. All couples disagree from time to time, and there’s nothing wrong with that. When you sweep issues under the rug in hopes of avoiding an argument, that just breeds resentment and hurts your relationship in the long run. Venting complaints in a constructive way clears the air and strengthens your bond.
So how do you do that?
Avoid the ‘Four Horsemen’
First, you have to steer clear of a few behaviors that can make conflicts devastating to your marriage. Gottman refers to these as the “Four Horsemen” because their constant presence in a relationship accurately identifies couples most likely to end up divorced. We all slip into these behaviors sometimes, but beware of letting them become a pattern when you argue with your spouse.
- Defensiveness. Conflict becomes toxic when partners deny responsibility, make excuses or counterattack.
- Criticism. Don’t attack your spouse’s personality or character; instead, stay focused on the specific problem.
- Stonewalling. Some people shut down in a conflict because they are trying not to “make things worse.” Ironically, stonewalling often has the opposite effect.
- Contempt. Showing contempt is the absolute worst thing you can do during an argument with your spouse. Insulting your husband in front of others, rolling your eyes and mocking can all quickly damage your relationship.
Follow the Rules for Fighting Fair
Now that you know the “danger zones” to avoid during your next argument, here are a few tips to strengthen your bond, even when you’re in conflict:
- Time it right. Don’t bring up issues when you are tired, irritated or feel like you can’t control yourself — or when you can tell that your husband is experiencing one of those states.
- Get close. Pause, hold hands and make eye contact when you’re disagreeing. When you are in touch with the humanity of your partner, you’ll be less likely to hurt each other.
- Choose your words wisely. The first few moments of your interaction set the tone for what comes next. You know your husband better than anyone else does — which means you probably know exactly what to say to wound him deeply. No matter how angry you are, exercise restraint and remember that your words have power. A few mean-spirited words in the heat of the moment can haunt your relationship for a long time.
- Pause. Ask for time to calm down if you need it, but keep in mind that you do still need to come back and address the issue.
If you’re too upset during your next argument to recall anything else from this article, just remember that the key word is “respect.” When you maintain respect with each other during a conflict, you keep your relationship on solid ground. If you’d like more advice on fighting fair in your relationship, you will find an entire chapter devoted to the topic in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.