How to fight fair and win: Resolving conflict in marriage

There will be times in your marriage when you and your spouse disagree. Learning to argue fairly is a skill that will benefit your marriage.

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  • My husband and I have been married over 20 years, but I still remember our first fight.

  • Something was bothering me. I can't remember what it was. Perhaps he had squeezed the toothpaste tube from the middle, or maybe he had left his socks on the floor. Whatever it was, I knew I needed to talk to him about it.

  • He came home from work, and he could tell something was wrong.

  • “What is it?” he asked. I burst into tears.

  • He led me to the couch, put his arm around me, and told me everything would be OK. He encouraged me to get it off my chest. Through my tears, I explained what had been bothering me. He thought about it for a minute, and then said, “You're right. I'll fix that.”

  • That was it. Not at all the big ordeal I had built up in my mind, nothing that shook the foundations of my marriage. Just a little honest communication with my humble and loving husband.

  • I learned a lot from that experience, and through the years, we have continued the same pattern of communication. Here are the rules that we follow.

  • No name calling

  • Yes, this includes the obvious names like “jerk” and “idiot,” but it also includes more subtle name calling. Do not tell your spouse that he is being ridiculous or that he has a stupid idea. I will forever be grateful that my husband didn't simply dismiss me as being "hysterical” or “emotional,” but instead listened to my complaint and addressed it directly.

  • Use “I” phrases

  • When expressing your opinion or pointing out a problem, begin your sentences with, “I.” (I think, I feel, I believe ...) For example, you might say, “I am worried when you come home late without calling.” This is far less accusing than starting a sentence with, “You.” Don't say, "You never call when you are going to be home late." Using “You” sentences will make your spouse defensive and make it difficult to address the problem.

  • How important is this issue to you?

  • On a scale of one to ten, how important is the issue being discussed to you? How important is it to your spouse? If you are at a three but she is at a seven, then you might want to concede the matter to your wife. If you are at a nine and she is at a five, then explain why it is so important to you and ask her to concede the matter to you. If you both feel strongly, then you will both need to sacrifice and compromise to come up with a reasonable solution.

  • Is your spouse right?

  • The wonderful thing about marriage is that it brings all of our flaws, big and small, to the surface. This is a great opportunity to grow and become a better person. My dear husband did not become defensive when I brought up our problem. Instead, he weighed things carefully and recognized that, in this instance, I was right. He was humble enough to want to change.

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  • However, minor flaws are not an excuse for nagging. Constantly picking on your husband, or allowing him to do the same to you, will erode self-esteem and hurt your marriage. It is always a good idea to pick your battles.

  • Sometimes there is no right or wrong — just different

  • You grew up in a certain family culture that did things a certain way. Your spouse grew up in a different family culture that might have done things differently. That does not mean that either way is best. For example, maybe your family makes a big deal about birthdays. Your mom always threw a big party and bought you many gifts. Your spouse, however, grew up in a family where birthdays weren't a big deal. Maybe his mother just gave him a single gift, and then they went along with their business. If your husband fails to throw you a party or shower you with gifts, it doesn't mean that he is an insensitive cad. It simply means that he is used to a different way of celebrating birthdays.

  • Get a referee

  • Maybe you have some bad communication habits that are too hard to break, or you are having a difficult time coming to an agreement on a really big issue. An objective set of ears could be just the thing you need. Together, talk to a clergyman or marriage counselor. They have the necessary tools to help you through your difficulties.

  • Never, ever, ever discuss your marital problems with family and friends, especially without your spouse present. It is disloyal to your spouse and unfair to your listener. You will only be damaging the relationships that are most important to you.

  • It is possible to fight fair and win – if you define “winning” as having a happy, loving marriage.

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Shelli Howells is a creative fiction writer, and a mother of six.

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