Family Life

Fight Fair: 10 Rules for Healthy Disagreements in Marriage

Did you promise to love and comfort, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness, and in health, for as long as you both shall live? When we lovingly answered, “I do,” it was hard to imagine what day-to-day life with our spouse would look like. Whether you have been married a short time or for many years, you realize that marriage takes a lot of hard work and understanding. Even in the happiest and healthiest marriages, arguments cannot be avoided. It is wise to set some ground rules to help resolve conflicts and keep the relationship loving and respectful.

Rule #1: Anger is an emotion.
Remember that anger is just an emotion. Everyone should be allowed to feel angry, sad, upset, or disappointed. These emotions are normal and are neither right nor wrong. Also, remember that everyone handles them differently. One person may cry, another may scream, and yet another may want to be alone. Try to be respectful of your partner’s emotions. When your spouse is angry, try to understand her side of things. Allow her to express her anger before responding. When you are angry, check your emotions. Where is the anger coming from? Are you angry with this situation or a larger issue? Knowing the true source of anger will help resolve the conflict.

Rule #2: No one “wins.”
When someone “wins” an argument or gets his or her way, the other party can feel a lot of resentment towards his or her spouse. Try not to emphasize who has won an argument and who has lost. When resolving conflict, come to a compromise that makes everyone comfortable. If it is obvious that one person has triumphed, do not flaunt it. 

Rule #3: Take a break.
If an argument becomes heated and a resolution is not clear, agree to take a break. Many people need time and space to digest the issue at hand. While a break from the disagreement is a good idea, it should never be brushed aside and ignored. It is likely that the issue will arise again and be compounded by the earlier brush off. When taking a break, set aside a specific time when both parties are calm to discuss the issue again. A solution may come easier after some time away from the situation.

Rule #4: Be honest and specific.
When you do sit down to discuss the disagreement, honesty is best when communicating with your spouse. When your partner brings something to your attention, try to be honest with yourself about what your actions were and how they made your spouse feel. Also, be specific when explaining what upsets you. Name specific issues that are bothering you, and do not exaggerate. Statements like, “You always…” or “You never…” are not productive. “This evening at dinner, it hurt me when you said…” is much more specific and helps your partner understand exactly what bothered you. 

Rule #5: Don’t hit below the belt.
During an argument, hurtful things may be said, but try to remain respectful, and don’t “hit below the belt.” Bringing up topics that you know are sensitive should be avoided unless at the heart of the matter. Threatening divorce, name calling, or saying negative things about your partner’s looks should also be off limits. Once something is said, it cannot be taken back and words can be very damaging and hurtful. Agree to avoid these “low blows” before an argument is even started. Know when to walk away if things do get out of control.

Rule #6: Use good communication skills with each other.
When you sit down to discuss the conflict, take turns speaking and listening. Repeat back what your spouse has said to make sure you understand, and so he knows you are listening. Pay attention to how your spouse communicates and how he responds to different types of communication. Give your spouse the same respect you would give a friend or coworker. Good communication skills are not always easy, but making the effort can go a long way in conflict resolution.

Rule #7: List clear solutions.
As a couple, come up with a list of clear solutions to the conflict. Negotiate and compromise until you have a solution that you are both comfortable with, and state precise ways to reach this resolution. Not everything can be resolved quickly or perfectly the first time, so it may take some trial and error to find something that will work for you both. Patience and understanding go a long way towards reaching an agreement.

Rule #8: Be careful with kids.
When a disagreement arises, be aware of the children in the home and what they will overhear. Heated disagreements with screaming, cursing, and name calling should be avoided, especially if kids are around. Arguments can be scary for a child who doesn’t understand what is going on. There is no need to hide a healthy disagreement from your child. Kids should learn that disagreements are normal in any relationship, and they can learn how to best handle these situations by following your good example. 

Rule #9: Use humor.
When a disagreement becomes tense, sometimes it is best to turn to humor to lighten the mood. A good laugh with your spouse can help you remember why you got married in the first place and dissolve anger and tension that may have built up during the argument. 

Rule #10: No violence.
The most important rule that should be set when arguments come up in marriage is that everyone must feel safe. If you are fearful of your partner’s anger, or if your spouse is hurting you, your children, or destroying your property, it is time to seek help. Please speak to a third party professional if you do not feel safe in your relationship. While anger is an emotion that is normal, violence and emotional abuse are never acceptable. ■

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