A faithful reader of this column emailed me that he and his wife argue quite a bit. Though it seems destructive, he says they always make up with the problem solved. He asks if arguing is a constructive way to solve problems.
At least one professional thinks marital arguments are just fine. Psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz says, “Because your [spouse] is not your clone, your opinions will sometimes differ. How you negotiate those differences is predictive of how healthy a relationship you will have…. Arguing well can even result in further intimacy because it shows you can both disagree yet find a way to compromise and still love each other.”
My experience over the years suggests that arguing is not a desirable way to communicate. But arguments will happen, and the key is to not say hostile things that you’ll regret. Hurtful words cannot be taken back.
Viewed in hindsight, there can be some advantages. A key example would be a mistaken assumption that your partner has about what you feel. Careful listening will allow you to say, “I listened to you, and I believe you’re operating on some mistaken assumptions about what I think, feel and do. May I tell you what those are?”
You can do this in your own words, but if that doesn’t work, then try it in writing. Believe it or not, couples often resolve painful differences by writing thoughtful letters to one another. Both now have a chance to think about it and perhaps discuss the letters. Writing isn’t a perfect substitute for verbal communication, but it can help each partner to be more rational — minus the interruptions and emotional outbursts.
A devoted spouse should be open to the idea that his or her partner might be right. If you respect the one you love, their point of view should matter. They could actually be right. What a radical concept! If more married couples took this idea seriously, the divorce rate would probably be cut in half.
I’m amazed by how many fighting couples throw around the word “commitment” as if it’s somehow guaranteed to solve everything. The word can impart a sense of phony moral authority; “Well, I’m committed. If you were committed, you would see things my way!” Sorry, that’s not what commitment means. It doesn’t mean getting mad or hurt when someone doesn’t see things your way. It doesn’t mean being righteously indignant, as if being understood and agreed with were an entitlement. True commitment means just the opposite, i.e., “My point of view is of course very important to me. But my partner’s perspective is equally important. If there’s a difference, we’re going to find a resolution, no matter how long it takes. We’re BOTH entitled to a reasonable outcome.”
If that feels like a duty or an obligation, then why did you bother to get married? Why do you love this person? There’s no law preventing you from living without a partner. You consciously chose your spouse. If you can’t muster up a mature dedication to resolving differences, then you have no business being in a relationship. Sorry, contradictions aren’t allowed. That’s not my rule — it’s just the way it is.
Dr. Saltz’ bottom line is this: “Disagreements in a marriage are necessary and healthy, but arguing well includes finishing your disputes in a constructive way.” She makes a good point. Disagreements are necessary and a part of life. Something is wrong if you’re never expressing disagreement with your life partner. The key is in how you handle it.
Movies and TV are filled with images of couples fighting and then making up, both sexually and romantically. Though it’s a bit of a myth (and surely overplayed), the idea has merit. To survive a disagreement and come back still in love is a sign of true commitment and genuine maturity on both sides. Maybe a little destruction can, in fact, clear the way for something better.