I remember the first argument Richard and I had after we married – something to do with the right way to carve a chicken, I think. We’d had nearly a year of wedded bliss with hardly a cross word, but that evening I think we broke almost every rule in the book. There were raised voices (Richard), sulking (me), and misunderstandings (both of us) as the hurts of the last year all came tumbling out.
It took some time to unpick the emotions of that evening – mainly because neither of us understood two key truths: a) conflict in marriage is to be expected, and b) it is not necessarily a bad thing. Conflict is not, in itself, the problem. What’s important is how we deal with it. Usually, if we don’t resolve it quickly it rumbles on; but if we sort it out, a week or so later we won’t even remember what the row was about.
If we find it difficult to deal with conflict, our default position may be simply to keep the peace. We can sidestep the issue or resort to passive aggressive tactics – not telling our partner if we’re upset with them or expecting them to know telepathically. Or perhaps we give them the silent treatment –sulking or withdrawing emotionally. However, if there is an issue between us that needs resolving, it is generally so much better to face it and deal with it. In fact, psychologists have found that, surprisingly, people who have the best relationships are those who let their partner know when they are annoyed. It’s because rather than ignoring an issue, they flag it up and sort it out! In contrast, with people who repeatedly take things on the chin, the pressure mounts inside until one day the valve gives way. When that happens, the effects can be cataclysmic!
So for the sake of our relationship there may be times when, rather than sidestepping the issue, we have to take courage and face it – together. The important thing when we do have an argument, however, is that we fight fair.
I remember watching the legendary wrestlers Giant Haystacks taking on Big Daddy on the TV in the eighties. The fights as they hurled each other across the ring were mesmerizing! But it wasn’t until years later that I discovered these fights were staged. The fact that they’d seriously injure each other unless there were clear ground rules had escaped me. In fact, they were friends and trained together to fight fair so that neither of them got badly hurt.
And when it comes to conflict in marriage, there are also some ground rules for having a fair fight.
- No physical violence or verbal abuse. The first and most important rule – absolute and non-negotiable.
- Remember you’re on the same side. Conflict creates a ‘Me v You’ situation, but rather than marshalling our weapons, we can remember that in marriage we are on the same side. We need to call a truce and tackle the issue together.
- Listen to the full story. An easy mistake to make when having a disagreement is not letting our partner finish what they are saying and jumping to conclusions before we’ve heard the full story. Listening shows respect and helps us to grasp the heart of the problem so that we can resolve it together.
- Attack the issue not the person. There’s a difference between arguing about the issue and criticising the person. Two little phrases that make it personal are ‘You never’ and ‘You always’: ‘You never put a new loo roll on when it’s finished’ or ‘You always check your phone just when we go to bed.’ Rather than adding fuel to the fire, we can say how the issue makes us feel: ‘I feel like you take me for granted when you leave it to me to replace the loo roll’ or ‘It makes me think the phone is more important to you than I am when we’re in bed.’
- Be prepared to lose an argument. Richard and I can both be tenacious (aka stubborn). Disagreeing over an issue recently and both convinced we were right, we reached an impasse. That was until I remembered something a friend once said to me: ‘Katharine, sometimes you need to lay down your right to be right.’ It wasn’t what I’d wanted to hear at the time, but she was wise. This is not about the same person always giving in, but about both of us being prepared to lose the argument occasionally for the sake of our marriage.
Conflict comes to every marriage – both small, inconsequential issues and bigger ones that can go to the heart of our relationship. But agreeing some basic ground rules and learning to fight fair means that rather than damaging our marriage, our disagreements can actually strengthen it as we work through them together.
A little verse often quoted at weddings is ‘Do not let the sun go down upon your anger.’ It’s good advice for couples to sort out arguments before they go to bed. Of course, if we’re tired and emotionally exhausted that may not be wise to take literally – the principle is to resolve things as soon as we can. Richard and I try our best to heed that advice, but I also like the idea behind a well-known quote:
‘Don’t go to bed angry. Stay up and fight!’
Katharine Hill is UK Director of Care for the Family. She is a well-known speaker, broadcaster and author. Her latest book If You Forget Everything Else, Remember This: Building a Great Marriage is full of down-to-earth and practical advice to help couples navigate the highs and lows of married life, and is available from www.muddypearl.com. She is married to Richard and they have four grown-up children.
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