Fighting Fair

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Our first married fight had all the usual elements of a tantrum: tears, yelling, overly dramatic accusations of fatal character flaws, and two people completely and irrevocably convinced of the moral superiority of their own positions.

We hadn’t been home from our honeymoon very long, and we were only beginning to learn what it meant to evolve from a dating couple to a married one. We were both still students, and our apartment just off campus allowed us to remain involved in all of the social activities and friendships we’d enjoyed throughout our college experience. In fact, many nights found Paul back in his old stomping grounds, hanging out at the guys’ dorms, drifting from room to room to shoot the breeze, mooch pizza, and play video games.

I didn’t have a problem with this, at first. I’d arrive home from a seven o’clock class, stir up some Ramen noodles for myself, watch a little TV, do my homework, and busy myself with the hundred wedding gift thank you notes I had left to write. But as one hour turned into two, then five, and midnight came and went with no word from the man who was supposed to be sliding into bed next to his brand new wife, mild irritation would turn to worry, worry would turn to anger, and anger would dissolve into tears as I started to imagine all the terrible fates that could have befallen him. Just about the time I was imagining what I would say to the police officer who came to give me the bad news that my young husband had been struck down by a gang of murderous bikers, in he would walk, smiling broadly and goofily unaware of the tempest of emotions roiling inside his hapless bride.

The first couple of times it happened, the relief of finding that he was okay eclipsed everything else, and the leftover bit of honeymoonish glow that still suffused our tiny apartment quickly swept away the anger I felt. Finally, though, things came to a head.

It was two in the morning on a weeknight. I had worried, I had wept, I had even called around to a couple of his friends’ rooms to find out if they had seen him–only my fear for his well-being overcoming my aversion to an act that, to me, had “naggy wife” written all over it. And, to be honest, I was embarrassed to admit that my girlish fantasy of true lovers wanting to spend “every moment together” was already riddled with holes, pierced by the reality of life with a flesh and blood man instead of a fairy tale hero. Paul had never stayed out so late without calling before, though, and I was sure that this time he was lying in a ditch somewhere, his life’s blood ebbing out in a dark and widening pool as he struggled to remember the license plate number of the long haul trucker who had run over him. When he finally walked through the door, he walked into a full-blown hurricane.

I won’t go into detail about what was said, mainly because the merciful fog of years has faded the memory a bit. Somewhere amidst all the hard words and tears and recriminations and hot defensiveness, we each managed to make our points. We were new at the whole arguing thing, so we might have wasted a few words and thrown a couple of low blows, but when the smoke cleared at last, we had reached an understanding. Paul promised to let me know where he was going and when he’d be home, and I promised not to call out the National Guard if he was a few minutes late.

One issue down, five thousand two hundred ninety-nine to go.

***

Our marriage group topic this month is The Healthy Handling of Conflict:

Icebreaker: Can you remember the very first argument you ever had as a married couple? What was it about?

1. Do you, as a couple, have any rules for “fighting fair”?

2. As individuals, we start learning our patterns of handling conflict when we’re children, from watching our parents fight. What habits, good or bad, do you think you’ve carried over from the way your parents argued with each other?

3. Many conflicts have their roots in unmet expectations. We each come to our marriages with certain presumptions about our partners and our relationships. Describe a time when you and your spouse encountered a difference in expectations. What did you do to resolve it?

4. Some relationships are characterized by a pursuer-withdrawer dynamic, that is, one partner is more likely to bring issues up for discussion, while the other tends to avoid these discussions or pull away during them. How does this play out in your marriage? What compromises can help a couple to break out of this pursue-withdraw pattern?

5. Every marriage seems to have one or two “hot button issues” that come up over and over and never get resolved. How do you handle these sensitive topics in your marriage? How important is it to reach a resolution on those issues?

6. What is one positive change you can make in the way you and your spouse deal with conflict?

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18 responses »

  1. I feel SO much better knowing that I wasn’t the only New Naggy Wife! I was terrified something would happen to him, especially when he didn’t my call by the 115th time. Apparently, dialing a number every 2 seconds does not guarantee an answer.

    First argument ever? About his friends, I’m sure.

    Rules for fighting:
    1) Never use hateful or hurtful words
    2) No yelling and never physical
    3) No leaving. Ever.

    I learned to push down my anger from my mother but then it boils and blows over stupid little things. I’m trying so hard with that. My husband just puts emotions before thinking and he’s doing worlds better now that we have children.

    I expected my husband to think of me every nano-second. To always imagine how I’d feel about everything. That’s unrealistic.

    We both do the pursue-withdraw. But rather than talk it to death anymore (good grief that made for long nights) we take time to think about what the other has said, then have a calm, rationale conversation where we truly listen to each other.

    As for hot-button issues, we both have them. The best thing I’ve found to do that gets my husband to at least understand my views is to turn the scenario around on him. That helps tremendously. How would he feel if he couldn’t reach me after trying for an hour? What if I promised to come home at a certain time and then don’t for another two or three? Etc.

    Pick your battles. So true.

    A positive change is to continue to LISTEN. Just because we may not always see eye-to-eye doesn’t mean our opinions or feelings shouldn’t be validated. Being validated by your spouse is extremely important, I believe.

    Great post!

  2. We have used in our own marriage of 25 years and taught hundreds of couples in group and couple’s counseling what we call “The Jerk Rule.”

    Sometimes we all get bent out of shape for no logical reason and act like a jerk. The jerk rule says “If your spouse is acting like a jerk, let them. Don’t hold it against them. They’ll figure it out eventually. Only one person has the right to be a jerk at a time.”

    It works, try it.

  3. Well, we began practicing and perfecting the art of argument, the basics of bickering and the craft of conflict (yeah, I’m an alliteration addict) pretty early on in our relationship – way before engagement and marriage, even. I can’t tell you what the first fight was about… or about the millions of others we’ve had since then. Part of it is that we are both very passionate (read: stubborn) about just about everything.
    Money is a big issue with us. I’m a saver – he’s a spender. A lot of it has MUCH to do with the ways in which we were raised, and it’s helped somewhat to get away from the emotion-ality of the fight and lay out the rationalities. It always comes down to the same issue – stability/saving for the future vs. enjoying the present, etc.
    We’ve both gotten so much better about wading through the emotion and being able to call it out for what it is – realizing when we really feel strongly about something v. just being emotional.
    And we are able to accept who we are and what that means – and to use our strengths. I’m a talker. I need to talk things out, and often it doesn’t require anything of him but a little time to let me talk through things. He’s one who just needs to walk away sometimes; to physically move on in order to realize whether the issue is truly important enough to actually be arguing over.

    So… there are my two cents worth. :o)

  4. The Icebreaker: Our very first married fight was over where to put our first set of new phone books…yeah, phone book location. I think we got down & dirty on that fight and said allot of things that shouldn’t have been said, almost cancelled our first trip to go see extended family, and slept in separate rooms! I’m so proud :)

  5. Unfortunately, our first fight as a married couple was right before we checked into the honeymoon suite. It is a long story, but basically, we’d both had a terrible time with our flight, rental car, etc. I don’t remember exactly what it was about, but what I do remember was no reason for us to be fighting!

  6. First married fight was in our cabin on our honeymoon cruise. No idea what it was even about, but it was a bad one. That was 7 years ago. Thankfully our fights seem to have gotten fewer and further between over time.

  7. I wish I had some cute anecdote like “The Jerk Rule” (which I think is genius by the way). After 11 years, I think I win the title of “Overly Emotional Worst All Time Jerk Who Makes Too Many Sweeping Over-generalizations When Ticked Off” I wish I could say I’ve learned to fight fair. This post really convicted me.

    My sweet husband ALWAYS gives me the benefit of the doubt (except for when he mysteriously starts acting too literal) and I NEVER give him the benefit of the doubt – there I go again, see the trend – broad over-generalizations. He is ALWAYS the one to forgive first, even if I was the one who was wrong (which is rarity, by the way).

    Over the years we’ve worked many things out, but the older we get, the more we realize there is always something to work out. We will never ‘make it’. I can’t seem to check the box titled “perfect wife” yet.

  8. My fighting mood, which doesn’t surface very often, is strangely tied to my hormonal (im)balance at the moment. Worst fear is the dead husband in the ditch thought … or worse … being involved in a gunfight (he’s a cop). I still remember our ‘Engagement Encounter” weekend and them telling us not to go to bed angry … and have only done that once or twice in 27 years. I choose my battles carefully … and try to impart humor and a few well chosen snide remarks when appropriate to deflect a blow up.

  9. This is off this subject, but I wanted to thank you for your representation at the Blog meeting today for HBO. Knowing your voice and opinions were there made me feel good. I bet it was interesting.

  10. I had parents that shielded me so highly from conflict that I didn’t know what was acceptable fighting and what was not. Unfortunately, I spent many years thinking that I was supposed to “buck up” and accept his treatment of me. He broke every rule of conflict, every rule of engagement, all the while I smiled my pretty little Stepford wife smile and tried to make him happy. I almost died in that marriage.

    I wish I had this information back before I even had gotten married, because then I would have known just how very wrong the whole relationship was.

    I think sometimes parents want to protect you so much, that they give you a tainted view of what’s real. My own parents never, ever fought in front of me, as a child. Life was supposed to be about homemade ice cream, white picket fences, pretty dresses, and the man was always right.

    I’m so glad that in today’s world there are resources out there for young couples, to help them with coping skills, conflict, and relationship support, most of all that there are organizations for those suffering from spousal abuse, a resource for the victims that survive these types of relationships.

    Great post, and it’s very refreshing to read about couples that truly do love each other and work together to build upon their marriage.

  11. Wow, you guys have a lot of insightful comments and collective wisdom on this subject. I’ve always thought that if you could master communication and conflict management in a marriage, you could overcome any obstacle.

    SilverWillow, thanks so much for sharing your story. I think it’s important to note that violent and abusive behavior on the part of our spouse shouldn’t be endured at the cost of our safety and our children’s. It’s important to know that there are resources out there to help if you’re in that situation.

    Anyway, I guess I could chime in and answer a few of my own questions! Let’s see…

    Our “rules” for fighting: No personal insults–discuss the issue, not the person. Stay on topic–don’t dredge up the past. Take turns talking and truly listening (we sometimes use the Speaker-Listener technique for hot button issues.)

    The problem of different expectations came up a lot our first few years of marriage–in finances, in childrearing, and in time management, primarily. After eleven years, though, I’d say our expectations are more closely aligned than they’ve ever been.

    We don’t have a true “pursuer-withdrawer” dynamic going on, but Paul largely prefers to talk about disagreements that come up “right NOW”, whereas I like to have a few minutes or a few hours to collect my thoughts and discern my feelings so I won’t say something I later regret or have to take back. I think a good compromise is to set a definite time to talk about it later, so the right-now person knows that the wait-till-later person isn’t just avoiding the issue.

  12. My parents never fought in front of my brother and I, and never fought in a way to allow either of us to know they were fighting at all. Rather than retard our understanding of conflict management, this helped. Casey and I soon learned that we did often see our parents in the middle of a disagreement, but because there were never any raised voices or recriminations against one another, those were “civil discourses and debates” not “fights.”

    The lesson: disagreeing is fine. Debating (even heatedly, although my folks never got heated) is okay.

    Fighting is not okay.

    Of course, in pracatice, that doesn’t always work out. But with that goal in mind, everything seem to run smoother.

    FYI: My first trip to the dog house as a married man was because i didn’t call when car trouble was keeping me late after an after-hours promotion with my job. It sounded a lot like what you went through with Paul.

    I apologized and promised to keep Jess first in my thoughts when things went wrong that she might want to be appraised of.

  13. Hee…I don’t remember what our first fight was about. I just know I was mad at something, let it stew at work all day and wrote my big speech in my head on the way home. However, when he finally did show up, I was so emotional and overwrought, all I could blurt out was the last sentence of that speech which went, “And I feel like an Amana refrigerator!”
    Of course, it made absolutely no sense without the preliminary speech and to this day I can’t remember if he made me feel fat or like an appliance or chilly. And why an Amana, specifically…who knows. I just remember him standing there speechless until finally all he could say was, “I’m sorry about that.”
    That was 20 years ago and we’re slightly better at it now.

  14. Sisiggy – way too funny :) You made me laugh out loud!

    As for the fighting in front of the kids issue that I’ve seen come up a few times, I have to say that we are actually pretty bad about that. We both tend to deal with the problem right then, versus waiting until a more appropriate time when little eyes & ears aren’t present. Unfortunately, sometimes the argument gets out of hand and before we know it, the kids are chiming in – never a good thing. But, with almost a year of marriage counseling (we call it a tune-up), we’re getting better about conflict management. We hardly ever argue anymore; we’ve gotten much better about discussing. But, we still do it in front of the kids from time to time. Our friends actually make fun of us because we don’t let things ‘go'; we deal with the conflict right then, work through it, and move on. But, we never let it get ugly!

    Not that it’s healthy for kids to see their parents arguing, but I I do think it’s good for them to see it’s not always ‘easy’ and that mommies & daddies don’t always agree, but can come to terms and find common ground. I think it’s a lesson in conflict resolution, as well as a lesson that marriage isn’t easy, but worth the effort.

    I grew up in a house where my parents didn’t hide their conflicts. I remember a few very heated debates that upset me, but after the smoke cleared, we would always sit & discuss the things that upset me. I knew from a young age that things weren’t always perfect, but if you loved the person, then it was worth the effort to work through the conflict. I don’t think I had a jaded view of marriage – just of my hubby – he was perfect until that phone book debacle!

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