Making Marriage Work by Fighting Fairly

Some couples claim that they never argue. That's next to impossible in marriages where both partners feel free to express their differences. Other couples have frequent arguments that sometimes get very loud. However, the volume and frequency of fights aren't very telling — nor are the issues that a couple fights about. The most important question is: Are the fights fair?

In marriage, you and your spouse have to referee your own disputes without help from a third party, so you need to hammer out rules and limits that work for you. The two of you can set flexible boundaries that suit your individual personalities and your marriage — as long as you follow the rules of fair fighting.

Understand what's really going on

When you sense that a fight is about to erupt between and your partner, try to scope out the underlying cause of the argument:

  • Are you or your spouse just letting off steam?
  • Is there something specific that you want your partner to do?
  • Are your angry words an expression of serious differences or conflict in your marriage?

Different strategies are effective for handling different kinds of arguments. The following techniques can work well, depending on the situation:

  • If your partner is just blowing off steam, it's sometimes a good idea to say nothing and let him or her cool down.
  • If you want your partner to do something, a direct approach often works best.
  • If your arguments are part of an ongoing pattern that leaves one or both of you feeling bad, consider seeking out professional help.

Stick to the issues

You're more likely to get your partner to see things your way if you avoid personal attacks and concentrate on what you're trying to accomplish. For example, if you're upset because your wife is late, don't say, "You have absolutely no consideration for other people." Instead, try saying: "I feel more relaxed and have a much better time when we get to places a few minutes early. Can we do it that way next time?"

Your partner is likely to respond to your needs if she doesn't feel attacked and forced to defend herself.

Look for ways to bend without breaking

In a successful marriage, both partners must be able to compromise and negotiate. Sometimes, the two of you can find a middle ground. If, for example, you want to spend your two-week summer vacation at the shore and he wants to spend it at a resort with a golf course, you can work it out in several different ways:

  • You can both spend a week at the shore, then a week at the resort.
  • You can each spend a portion of your vacation time apart.
  • You can agree to go to the shore this summer, and to the golf resort next summer.

Figure out what's at stake for each of you — and defer to the partner whose needs are stronger. For example, if your wife has had a particularly stressful year and you know that she finds spending time near the ocean relaxing, consider taking the kind of vacation she wants this summer.