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One of the most common questions we’re asked in this new little blog is, “what about the fights?”
Indeed, if you haven’t had some serious, heart-pounding disagreements in your relationship, you’re probably not in a serious, heart-pounding relationship yet.
Disagreements are inevitable in any long-term relationship, and sometimes they can be very spirited ones. Let’s face it – if you’re going to be married, you’re going to fight sometimes.
We think the difference between a marriage that remains strong after a fight, and the one that is damaged from it, is how you fought. In 1579, poet John Lyly wrote that “all is fair in love and war,” but when love is war, we can’t stress enough how helpful it is to have some rules of engagement.
We’re going to cover our Twelve Rules for Fighting Fair, our “Dirty Dozen”, as it were, over two blog posts. This week, you’ll get the first six, and next week’s post will cover the rest.
One thing we should note before we begin:
We are most definitely not talking about enduring abuse of any sort, including verbal and emotional abuse. If you feel you are in an abusive relationship, you need to seek outside help immediately. Here is a hotline for victims of domestic abuse that will help you get out, and stay safe. Or, in a moment of violence, immediately call 9-1-1. Do it!
That said, here are our first six rules to fight fair:
Keep the argument limited to the subject at hand
It’s sometimes difficult to do, because passions flare, and sometimes your mind will race to ten other things your spouse does that annoys you at the same time you’re arguing about one specific concern, but it’s critically important that you resolve the matter you’re arguing about, not summon up a host of others and confuse the issue.
Often this is done when one party feels they are beginning to lose the argument. They’ll quickly switch to another subject on which they feel they have stronger footing.
Therapists call this tactic deflecting – moving off of the actual subject and onto a topic that gives you more confidence in your position.
That’s off-limits in a fair fight. Resolve one issue. The rest are on the bench until the one is settled.
Don’t bring others into the argument.
Once again, this stems from a position of weakness, and one party feels the need to damage the reputation of their spouse with others as a way of propping up your own position.
It’s frankly not your mom’s or sister’s or friend’s business to know the gripes you have with your spouse. Feeling the need to bring allies into the fight to prop your side up tells you how truly weak your argument actually is. And denigrating your spouse to others, and letting them do it back, is one of the most sinister ways you can undermine your own relationship.
That’s not to say you don’t seek help if you’re in a truly abusive situation, but there is a huge difference between being a battered spouse and just one who is sick and tired of asking your spouse to do something around the house.
Don’t bring up the past.
This one is hard for those who grew up hearing it, like Jeremy did.
Make sure you’re keeping the argument focused on the matter at hand. Don’t try to bring up old hurts and grievances as either a way to boost your own argument or shame and guilt the other person into backing down.
The past is the past. Let it remain there.
The Bible has a wonderful set of verses describing true love, and almost none of it is about how you feel, but rather what you do for the other person:
1 Corinthians 13:4-8 New International Version (NIV)
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
If you’ll notice carefully, it’s a list of activities, not feelings. Love is ultimately a decision. Feelings come and go. Commitment doesn’t.
An important part of verse 5 states that love “keeps no record of wrongs”. It’s sometimes hard to do because the pain our spouse can cause in dark moments can last us a very long time. So you may feel the hurt of past mistakes and hurtful words, but trotting out the list of things your spouse has done wrong in the past is one of the most unfaithful ways to fight with someone.
If you’ve said you’ve forgiven your spouse for something he or she did in the past, then either your word is worth something or it’s not. Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting, but it does mean, choosing to lay it aside.
Don’t say things you don’t mean
Our former pastor used to say that he told his son, as part of his training to use guns, that once the trigger is pulled, “you own that bullet”. You can’t take it back, and you will forever be responsible for the damage done with it.
Your words are exactly the same thing.
Do you ever notice that you’ve long since forgotten the sting of physical slaps and punches of a fight with a sibling or a schoolmate, but the hurtful things people have said to you, linger for decades?
Bruises to our bodies heal. Bruises to our spirit never do.
In fighting, it is so important to say what you mean and mean what you say. To take an argument about spending money and turn it into a volley of verbal assaults on your spouse, trying to say the most hurtful things you can say, is a reprehensible thing to do.
You own every bullet you fire, and sadly, many will leave lasting injury.
Plus, this tactic again shows how weak your position in the original argument really was. If you have to attack your spouse in hurtful, personal ways just to “score points”, you need to do some serious reflection on where your intense feelings of inadequacy really come from.
Don’t try to win the fight, try to resolve the issue.
This is pretty self-explanatory based on the rules above, but there’s more to it than avoiding being petty and vindictive.
Many people feel that disagreement is something that must, by its nature, be a zero-sum game. There must be a winner and there must be a loser. The idea of a win-win just doesn’t compute for many people.
But this isn’t a unilateral contract or a strong-arm negotiation we’re talking about here; this is the love of your life wanting to resolve a problem with you.
Never forget, the person on the other side of this is your lifelong partner – the person who loves you more than anyone – the person who knows you better than anyone and still comes home to you every day.
So remember that your job isn’t to win the argument. It’s to resolve it. Sometimes, you’ll win, and sometimes you’ll lose. But most often, you’ll end up at a compromise that works for both parties. And that’s just perfect!
One great example we can give is pretty simple:
Jeremy is a procrastinator. He works awesome under deadlines. He’s the type of student who was cramming overnight before the final and usually could walk out with an A or a B with minimal effort.
Kari is his polar opposite. She’s a meticulous list-maker and is always trying to get ahead of something long before it’s due. Kari used to even call the utility company before the bill was even sent, to see if she could pay it that early.
In our marriage, Jeremy is the trash-taker-outer, but like a good procrastinator, he’s usually chasing the trash truck down the block every Friday morning. This drives Kari nuts.
But Jeremy also hates to be nagged about getting the trash out. He knows it needs to be done, and knows where the real deadline is (the truck coming up the street), so he resents Kari reminding him ten times to take the trash out.
In the end, we reached a compromise that worked for both of us.
Kari asks Jeremy to get something done, by a deadline. Jeremy always works well with deadlines, and it lets Kari take the item off of her to-do list, which gives her peace of mind.
It’s a win-win. The trash isn’t going out when Kari wants it to go out, but it is going out before the deadline.
Do these kinds of negotiations in your marriage, and we promise, there’ll be a lot less fighting over daily chores and lifestyle issues.
Don’t bring outside frustrations into the argument.
The last item we’ll tackle this week is one we’ve done pretty well at over the years, but could always improve upon.
Don’t bring stresses from work, and the commute, and the drama of the office, home with you.
We say all the time that our home is the place we come to rest, recuperate, lick our wounds, and heal. It should not be the place where workplace drama continues, or where you take out other frustrations on the people who love you most.
We see this often in people who don’t know how to tactfully and assertively deal with outside pressures. Either they’re too nice at work, and come home and treat their families poorly as a form of counter-balance, or they just lack the ability to leave work at work and let home be a haven.
But that’s what home should strive to be – the safe port in life’s storms.
It’s not always easy to do that, but where there is a will, there is a way.
Early in our marriage, when the kids were still very young, Kari stayed home with them while Jeremy slogged to the day job and tackled a long commute home.
He was met at the door with two excited kids who immediately wanted to start playing, and a wife who desperately needed some “adult” time, to share the stresses and stories of her day with her husband.
But after a long day at work and an often brutal commute (it used to be over 60 miles one way), that immediate bombardment of stimulation as he walked in each night felt overwhelming.
After some arguments and then rational discussion, we determined that he just needed 30 minutes or so after he got home to shift gears mentally and emotionally, and get in “family mode”. So, in compromise, Jeremy would get home, the kids would come running and give hugs and kisses for a few minutes, and Kari would usher them off to another activity. Jeremy would get 15 to 30 minutes to change clothes, unwind from his day, and get ready to spend the evening fully engaged with the family.
It worked beautifully, and we still do it when we need to.
You can’t always keep life’s stresses from bleeding into the family, but you absolutely can make sure you know which ones need to be argued with your spouse and which ones you can leave at the door until tomorrow.