Odd subject for Valentine’s Day? Maybe. But one of the biggest secrets to a successful long-term marriage is figuring out how to argue with each other without irreparably damaging the relationship.
Just to clarify, when I say “fight” or “argue”, I don’t mean the knock-down drag-out verbal battles that pop up (hopefully) very rarely in a good relationship. I’m talking about the little debates about who’s washing the dishes, which car to buy, etc. that can pile up in any marriage.
Couples who tell me they “never argue” just don’t understand the meaning of the word. Because I firmly believe that a couple that always agrees on everything every day for years on end is in a coma. And comas aren’t healthy. Come on – people disagree with each other. It happens. Especially when you’re sharing a bathroom. For years. If you can disagree without ever raising your voice, as some people claim, that’s great (and please tell me your secret!), but it’s still a debate/argument/negotiation/fight, at least for the purpose of this post.
I’d love to give an example of the stupid things we argue over, but I can’t remember any. Why not? Well, for one thing, sometimes we don’t end our arguments discussing the same topic that we started with. And that’s the dangerous part of arguing – a silly vent/rant can become a grudge match if you’re not careful. The little quibbles over crumbs on the counter or empty toilet paper rolls can easily end up drifting to “you don’t respect me”; “you don’t appreciate me”; or, at its worst, “you don’t love me.” Fortunately, we’ve never reached the point of doubting our love for each other, even when we’re really ticked off. Healthy debate is an art, and it’s something married couples have to work at constantly to keep the marriage fresh and balanced.
There are a few philosophies out there on “how to fight”. One oldie is the idea of holding hands while you argue. It has merit – how can you stay mad at someone you’re holding hands with? You can’t stomp away, and there’s no point in yelling if you’re that close. And trying to stay mad when you’re holding hands usually leads to both of you giggling uncontrollably. The problem? Arguments start at the drop of a hat, and once you’re angry (after tripping over his or her shoes for the fifth time this week), the last thing you want to do is walk over and hold his hand! The hand-holding thing works best when you know a conversation might eventually get tense (“honey, I’d really like to spend our savings on a new flatscreen TV…”). If you plan in advance, and assume the hand-holding position early on, it can help both of you stay more calm.
And of course there’s the golden standard – “never go to bed angry.” I’m not so sure I support this one as much as I used to. Hubby is one of those guys who just goes to sleep when he’s tired, angry or not. I’ve been known to poke him to keep him awake so that we can work through some conflict and I can know we’re not going to bed angry, because that’s against the rules. Which, of course, makes him angry. Frankly, we’ve gone to sleep mad (or at least annoyed) a few times, and it’s been just fine. A good night’s sleep does wonders, especially if you’re arguing about something as silly as leaving the toilet seat down. Just as it’s hard to be mad at someone when you’re holding their hand, I’ve also discovered it’s hard to be mad at someone you’re waking up with…for the 5000th time. We tend to just give each other a bashful “love you” while brushing our teeth, and move on with our lives, because again, who can remember what started the argument in the first place? And who has the energy to carry it into day two?
One of my favorite tips came from a recent blurb in Reader’s Digest. It basically said to treat your spouse like a dog. Seriously. If you love animals, then you know how well your dog is treated, right? After Fido chews up your favorite slippers, sure, you’re mad as hell. But then he looks at you with those puppy-dog eyes and you know he didn’t really mean it, and you forgive him. Uses the dining room rug as a bathroom? Smack a rolled up newspaper in your hands and kick him outside, but you know an hour later he’ll be curled up in your lap getting his ears scratched. Yes, I’m talking about the dog.
But the same can work for a spouse – really. It’s all about intentions. I don’t intend to forget to empty the trash. Hubby doesn’t intend to leave the cupboard door open. I don’t intend to put his favorite cotton shirt into the hot dryer. He doesn’t intend to track mud into the living room. And aren’t those silly things the primary irritants in a good marriage? If I can forgive a four-legged mammal for its carelessness, then I can forgive my two-legged mammal, too.
On Saturday, we were driving through some bad weather on the way to a wonderful Valentine’s weekend get-away. Hubby was behind the wheel, and pulled out to pass another car in some very dicey snow conditions. I held my breath and grabbed the door (it was admittedly an over-reaction). He chuckled and asked me how the brakes were working on the passenger side of the car. I glared at him, and said “I’m picturing you as a puppy right now…” And we both laughed out loud.
And that’s the best “secret” of all – laugh. A lot. If you remain aware of how silly a disagreement is, and bring that silliness to the attention of your spouse, how can you really stay mad? As soon as one of us slips up and says something like “you ALWAYS…” or “you NEVER…”, the other will just start laughing and say “Really? Never? Never ever? Are you sure?” It might start with just a smirk, but pretty soon a smile is there, and then a laugh, and then we’ve forgotten whatever stupid thing we were arguing about.
Communication is the key. And that includes communicating when you don’t agree. And that’s going to happen, so you may as well figure it out now. I’m happy to say that I think we’ve done that pretty darned well in our marriage.
So, as we head rapidly towards our 15th wedding anniversary….Happy Valentine’s Day, my Love!