You’re the kind of person who avoids conflict. Your husband, on the other hand, seems to relish picking fights. It’s driving you crazy, but is it a serious problem in your marriage?
The answer is “it depends.” Let’s look at some reasons he may argue with you.
#1: He Just Likes to Debate
Some people just love to spar over politics, which “Avengers” movie was the best, where to order pizza … and on and on. For others, this is exhausting. That being said, very few people actually enjoy aggressively stirring up real arguments.
If he’s a debater and you’re not, the important thing is realizing that the two of you have different styles, and that you must learn to peacefully coexist.
“Respect” is really the key word here. If it suddenly feels like he’s talking about you, instead of, say, politics, pay attention. There’s a big difference between “I disagree with your candidate” and “You’ve got to be an idiot to vote for that guy.” And the latter statement is a sign of a deeper trouble in your marriage.
#2: He Wants to Talk EVERYTHING Out
You and your husband may be different in how much you feel a need to discuss things. Maybe you usually shrug off little annoyances, but he tends to make everything “a thing.”
You grit your teeth and put up with his family. He doesn’t hesitate to tell you how much your mom drives him nuts. You don’t say a word when he’s binge watching his favorite show. He lets you know he’s unhappy with the amount of time you spend on Instagram. Why can’t he chill out?
Maybe he came from a family where everyone expressed themselves openly, and your family was more reserved. Or, perhaps you were taught to let little things go, and he wasn’t.
Whatever the case, there isn’t necessarily a “right” approach. Some people with great marriages don’t express conflict openly. Others bicker all the time. The frequency of your arguments isn’t nearly as important as what’s going on in them. As long as you remain respectful, you’re on solid ground. (See “The Right Way to Fight With Your Husband.”)
Possibility #3: It’s Really About His Unmet Needs
Unmet needs can sometimes also be the source of intense conflict. The influential psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, creator of Nonviolent Communication, noted:
criticism, judgment, diagnosis, and expression of anger is the tragic
expression of an unmet need.
Could this be true of your husband? Is it possible his agitation is really about a need that’s not being met? Maybe he wants more time with you? More appreciation? Consider listening deeper for that unmet need rather than joining him in the fight. How would your response change?
Now this doesn’t mean that he has license to yell or throw tantrums and to expect you to read his mind. He has some responsibility to ask for what he needs. You have every right to ask that he be calm and constructive.
No matter which one of these scenarios applies to your marriage, please know that you and your husband can manage it together. Understanding the reason for the disagreement is important in helping you determine how to respond. Next time he picks a fight, I hope you’ll start by asking yourself, “Why is he arguing with me?”
All relationships are different. But I can tell you one thing for certain about yours: Both you and your husband have messed up at one time or another. And both of you will again.
That doesn’t mean your marriage is bad. It just means that you are two human beings in a relationship. The important thing is what happens after you’ve messed up.
Choose the Right Tools
You might remember that we’ve talked before about the work of the Gottman Institute. From his studies of married couples, Dr. John Gottman identified behaviors that separate the Masters of Marriage (couples who have been married for a long time and still like each other) and the Disasters of Marriage (those headed for divorce).
Gottman discovered that one of the most important qualities of a strong couple is the ability to address and recover from conflicts, hurts and mistakes. Gottman calls this process repair. And a repair attempt is “any statement or action – silly or otherwise – that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.”
A meaningful apology is one of the most valuable tools in your relationship repair kit. But it’s not the only one. Other examples of repair attempts include:
Asking to start a conversation over if it seems like the two of you aren’t hearing each other.
Suggesting taking a break so you can both get to a calmer place.
Being physically affectionate or reassuring.
Using humor or trying to lighten things up.
The best repair attempt to use with your partner — or for him to use with you — depends on your individual needs. Maybe, for example, physical affection instantly starts repairing a conflict for you, but it feels too emotionally intense for him until you both get a calmer place. The Gottman Institute has a repair checklist that I recommend talking about together before the next time the two of you need to practice relationship repair. The list will help each of you understand which repair attempts the other responds to.
Maintenance Is Important Too
Making effective repair attempts is only part of the equation, though. The real measure of how well you can navigate trouble spots in your relationship is how receptive you are to connecting with each other on a regular basis. Gottman has found that the Masters are responsive to their partner’s attempts to communicate or connect about 86% of the time, while the Disasters group only responds about 33% of the time! If the door to connecting is closed most of the time, it’s even harder to open when you are having trouble.
It is critical to pay attention to the overall emotional climate of the marriage. I’ve written before about why regular maintenance is essential for your marriage, and this is one more reason. When the two of you are regularly kind, respectful and appreciative with each other, it makes sense that you’ll be more open to repairing your relationship when things go awry.
To sum it all up, here’s a quick “maintenance and repair guide” for your marriage.
Establish a strong foundation by having positive interactions with each other daily.
Understand the repair attempts that you and your husband respond to.
Be generous in making repair attempts when you hit a trouble spot.
And be generous in accepting your husband’s repair attempts.
In my next blog article, we’ll continue to build your skills in healing both small and large rifts in your marriage. I’ll go into more depth on making, and accepting, apologies. In the meantime, you can get more strategies for building a marriage that can withstand conflicts in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
Your husband is great. Really. Well, except for a few little things.
But, now that you think about it, these “little” things are actually weighing on you. They might be habits like these:
He seems oblivious to housework, and you’re tired and stressed from trying to take care of it all.
He overspends, and while you’re not headed for bankruptcy, it’s slowing your progress toward the financial goals you both agreed upon.
He habitually runs late, which frustrates you and embarrasses you when you’re going somewhere together.
We can describe these kinds of issues in a marriage as tolerations. They’re somewhere between the minor quirks or annoyances you can easily shrug off and major problems like infidelity or addiction. Because they’re not deal-breakers, sometimes we hesitate to discuss them. Airing your concerns might seem like making a big deal out of a relatively minor issue. In the rest of this article, I’ll explain why the opposite is true, and I’ll tell you the most effective way to approach your tolerations.
Why Do We Tolerate?
First, though, let’s look some of the other reasons we often avoid talking about our tolerations. Which of the following are true for you?
You’re a perfectionist. You think should be able to push through or put up with anything. But all of us have physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual limits.
You have low self-worth. And you think you must make constant sacrifices to keep your relationship.
You’re conflict-averse. You fear conflict, or you think that it doesn’t happen in “good” marriages. Many people cope with difficult, or even merely uncomfortable, situations by avoiding them.
You’re tired of trying. In her book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, Dr. Sue Johnson describes a common pattern in marriage. You criticize and demand connection; he gets defensive and withdraws. Eventually, you give up and withdraw, too, leaving both of you distant and resentful.
The Cost of Toleration
If you’re tolerating in the name of being a “good wife,” know that this mindset isn’t actually helping your marriage. A toleration is like a stone in your shoe. It will annoy you, adding to your stress and depleting your energy – energy that could be going toward making your relationship more alive and authentic.
You may also think that you’re helping your marriage by not making mountains out of molehills. But that’s not what happens. Instead, unaddressed tolerations can spiral into major issues. The scope of the problem might grow. For example, the overspending might worsen so that you’re now missing house payments. Or the feelings you’ve held in might explode, and you end up having the very thing you tried to avoid: a hurtful, relationship-damaging confrontation.
Stop Tolerating and Start Communicating
It’s a lot healthier to address small tolerations before they become big problems. But I know this can feel like a big, scary step if you’re not used to communicating openly and directly. Here are few things to remember that will help make things easier.
Conflict is normal.All couples have points of disagreement or annoyance. Despite what it might seem like from your social media feeds, no one has a perfect relationship or is in synch with her partner 100 percent of the time.
Conflict is healthy. The amount of conflict in a marriage isn’t an indicator of how healthy it is. It’s all in how the couple handles that conflict. Respectfully working together on addressing tolerations is a way to make your bond stronger.
Directness is loving. Believe it or not, many men are unclear on how to please their wives. Your own husband almost certainly wants you to be happy, but he can’t read your mind. You’re helping him by telling him what’s important to you.
Timing is key. It’s kinder and more effective to bring up your tolerations when you aren’t irritated, tired or stressed. This is one reason why it’s best to have these discussions before your emotions get unmanageable.
Openness doesn’t have to be hurtful. Are you hesitant to talk about your tolerations because you don’t want to hurt your husband’s feelings? Remember to focus on the behavior rather than the person. There’s a big difference between “I’m feeling stressed because you regularly exceed the personal shopping budgets we agreed on for ourselves” and “I can’t believe you went shopping again! You’re so irresponsible!”
This week, think about what you’re ready to stop tolerating and how you can work together with your husband to address what’s bothering you. My book Strong Women, Strong Love can give you some additional strategies on communication and healthy conflict.