Most fights—whether they are seemingly about control or jealousy or toothpaste—are really about one of the following five problems, and the solutions are often quite universal.
Fight #1: I’m Right. You’re Right. How Can This Possibly Be?
I almost had such an argument with my husband the other week. He’d gone to Philadelphia with our daughter for the day, telling me that they’d be back in the early evening. Early evening came and went. I called, got his voice mail, and said in a very friendly tone, “Hey, let me know when you’ll be home so I can plan my evening.” An hour went by. I called again. This time I said, “I know. I know. I’m being neurotic, but I’m worried about you, especially now that you didn’t call back. Please humor me and call and let me know your timing.”
Another hour went by.
Soon I was on the Internet to see if there were any car accidents on the highway or random shootings in Philadelphia. I found nothing. I had that sick feeling in my stomach, the kind of sick feeling that makes one worry, “Is it time to call the police and fill out a missing persons report?”
That’s when I texted, “Are you okay?” Within seconds I got the response, “Yes.”
My first thought was, “I’m so relieved.” My second was, “Why didn’t you return my damn phone messages?”
When they got home, I was sincerely happy to see them. At the same time, I was a bit irritated. “Why didn’t you return my calls?” I asked.
“You called?” he asked.
“Yes, I called twice. I was worried about you.”
“I didn’t get a call. Oh,” he said looking at his phone. “I have two messages. From you.”
“I thought you were both dead,” I said. “You just subtracted a year off my life tonight. This is no exaggeration.”
We hugged. That was that.
Now, years ago, this type of argument would have gone on a lot longer. It would have included some yelling some me, accusing him of being inconsiderate and of not loving me and so on and so forth. Now, however, I’m better able to see such an issue for what it is: A misunderstanding. He did not try to bring anxiety and worry into my life. He was only trying to ensure the kid had a fantastic last day of summer vacation. He’s goals were noble, and so were mine. We were both right, but one of us (me) was hurt.
The solution: To circumvent this type of argument, it’s important to do three things. First, remind yourself that your spouse’s happiness, opinions, problems and decisions are just as important as your own. Second, understand that sometimes what brings your spouse happiness won’t bring you happiness and vice versa. Third, mentally exchange yourself with your spouse. Try to see the issue from your spouse’s perspective.
Fight #2: I’m Hurt.
You have this fight when your spouse has screwed up. Perhaps he or she promised to do something important, but didn’t follow through. Or maybe your spouse said something sarcastic and hurtful. The triggers are endless.
The solution: Make it your goal to be understood, but not to get an apology. I know, the apology would be nice, and, in some marriages, apologies happen easily and often. In many marriages, however, one or both spouses has a very hard time taking the blame and admitting it. This doesn’t mean your spouse isn’t truly sorry. It only means that your spouse hasn’t said those words out loud.
Case in point: My husband often fails to apologize, but I know I’ve been understood when he behaves differently in the future. This change in behavior is much more important to me than an apology. After all, people can say they are sorry without actually meaning it.
Fight #3: You’re Hurt
This is the reverse of Fight #2. Now you’ve done something that your spouse has found hurtful.
The solution: This is easy. Accept defeat. Do it even if you would not have been hurt if the situation were reversed. It’s tempting to question someone else’s experience and assume that it’s invalid because we haven’t had the same experience ourselves. (Note: I’ll be writing more about this phenomenon in a future post). That’s why it’s important to remind yourself that you and your spouse may not share the same reality, but this doesn’t mean you don’t love one another. Make it your goal not to bring unnecessary suffering into your spouse’s life. Seek to understand, apologize, and, most important, change your ways. And, yes, I did just tell you to apologize, but not to accept the same from your spouse. Trust me. It’s gospel.
Fight #4: I’m Grumpy
I could also call this one, “The fight that many couples get into late at night or first thing in the morning.” You are not fighting about anything in particular. Rather, you are just stressed, tired, hungry, irritable, or distracted, and all of that creates a perfect storm for anger.
The solution: Give your spouse space when he or she is grumpy. When you are grumpy, own it and tell your spouse, “I’m really grumpy. This isn’t about you. I’m putting myself in time out for your benefit.”
Fight #5: I’m Scared
This is the “I’m afraid you don’t love me” fight. It arises because it’s hard to admit fear and insecurity. Both make us feel weak. We mask that weakness by accusing our spouse of being no good. We hurl a bunch of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” at our spouse, like this, “You should never talk to other women. Good husbands don’t do that to their wives. What’s wrong with you?”
The solution: Own your insecurity, and make it your goal to overcome it by facing what you fear and having deep, real conversations with your spouse. This sounds like this, “When you talk to other women, I worry that you don’t love me anymore.” Your spouse will probably respond, “Of course I love you!” You can follow up with, “How can I know for sure?” Then your spouse can tell you. In other words, it’s not about setting up one rule after another for your spouse to follow. It’s about communicating your fear, understanding your spouse, and your spouse understanding you.
What arguments do you repeatedly have with your spouse?
A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.