In every marriage, there will be times of conflict. One of the ways we believe you can help create a marriage that lasts is learning how to “fight fair”.
Last week, we gave you the first six of our Dirty Dozen rules of fighting fair. This week, we’re exploring the other six.
Editor’s Note: there is now a podcast episode to go with this article! Listen here:
Be willing to be wrong, and be willing to say you’re sorry.
This sounds like common sense, but it’s actually very difficult for some people to do. No one likes to have to admit fault (or error), and, “I’m sorry,” is one of the toughest sentences to utter in the English language.
A successful marriage is based on trust, and trust is earned over time through a series of interactions that have honesty at their core. If someone cannot honestly own their mistakes, and apologize for the all-too-human temper or harsh words, then trust will be eroded until it’s gone. And as the foundation of a marriage, when trust doesn’t exist, neither does the marriage.
The root of an inability to admit a mistake or ask for forgiveness is just foolish pride. It can also be hidden vindictiveness – you don’t want to say you’re sorry because you never intend to accept anyone else’s apology. People who don’t let others off the hook will find it very difficult to ask for that grace from others.
But more often than not, it’s the right thing to do. Admitting the other party is right, and we are wrong, is a sure-fire way to diffuse tensions and allow you to work toward an actual solution. As we mentioned last week, a fair “fight” within a marriage isn’t about winning; it’s about resolving the issue.
When you’re wrong, or maybe were a little too passionate in your argument, or said something unnecessarily hurtful, say you’re sorry.
Forgive when it’s asked for (and sometimes when it’s not)
The flip side of being able to ask for forgiveness is being able to grant it – meaningfully – when it’s asked for.
We’ll all screw up from time to time. Whether it’s something pretty innocuous like forgetting to run an errand, or really egregious like hurling hurtful words in the middle of an argument, whenever our spouse realizes they owe us an apology, we need to accept it, and mean it.
That’s not always easy if in the heat of the moment, the wound they caused still stings. But forgiveness isn’t just about absolving your spouse of whatever they did that hurt you. It’s about removing a huge emotional barrier to bonding and intimacy.
And it might even be really healthy for you to practice forgiveness as a way of life.
We’re both practicing Christians, and one of the primary tenets of our faith is to forgive others as we were forgiven by God. As Christians, the Bible tells us that whenever we humble ourselves and confess our sins to God, “…He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
We need to do the same for others.
There is debate about whether you should forgive someone who hasn’t asked for it, but even if they haven’t asked, it’s still possible to let your anger subside and “lay down your sword”. Do this for your own sake, and for peace in your home.
And like we mentioned last week, if you’ve forgiven, then the transgression you forgave needs to stay in the past.
Not every hill is worth dying on.
We know some couples who fight over every little thing: where they are going out to eat, what corner to put up the Christmas tree (and white or colored lights), how long to cut the grass.
We even had a decent argument last fall about which specific tree branches Jeremy was going to cut off that Jeremy is pretty sure will happen again in a few weeks, because he wants to cut two more off of Kari’s peach tree that she doesn’t want to lose.
Ask yourself, in the grand scheme of things, if the thing you’re arguing about is actually worth the effort. Or more importantly, if it’s worth the emotional toll it takes on your relationship.
We hate to break it to you, but leaving the toilet seat up probably isn’t worth the fight.
One way to determine if the issue is worth doing battle over is to call a truce for an hour or more, to let tensions simmer. You can always reapproach the subject later, in a calmer atmosphere and with more clarity. Often, after a period of time spent focused on something else, that little annoyance suddenly doesn’t have the same grip on you that it did earlier.
Learn how the other person fights.
After 25 1/2 years together, we know each other extremely well. So much so that we often have entire conversations without saying a word to each other. We can be at a dinner party somewhere, and just by swapping glances, we know that our spouse is enjoying the conversation (or hating it), if we want to leave, if they find a person entertaining or dull, etc.
Getting to know another person so completely is one of the best parts of a long marriage. It’s actually really fun to be able to have meaningful interactions in a crowded room, without saying a word to each other.
Coming back around to the subject of fighting fair, you also get to know how your spouse engages in conflict, how they disengage, and what their recovery process typically is.
Kari was reminded of some Glory kickboxing matches we watch occasionally while we’re going to bed; specifically, the fighting styles of two of the heavyweight contenders we see regularly.
Rico Verhoeven, the long-time Glory heavyweight kickboxing champ, is a very good-spirited, very athletic 6’5″ guy who likes winning his matches by out-scoring his opponent in points. He thrills to use combination punch-kick-knee attacks and loves to go the entire 3 or 5 rounds with his opponent. And because he’s in amazing physical shape with high stamina for a man his size, Rico tends to out-last his opponents in the ring – he doesn’t have to go for an early victory. In fact, though Rico has been the Glory heavyweight champ for 6 years straight, he’s only had 16 knockouts in his entire career.
In contrast, one of the other heavyweight contenders, 6’8″, 260 pound Jamal “The Goliath” Ben Saddik, tires quickly with his lumbering stature, so he needs to try to take his opponents out early in the fight with a knockout. He’s had about half the fights of Rico, but has almost double the KOs.
Each fighter has a style that matches their training, experience, and skill set. We believe it’s critically important to know that about your spouse, because knowing how our spouse fights helps us to understand the best way to approach and resolve conflict in our marriage.
For instance, Jeremy (by his own admission), is much more short-tempered than he was as a younger man, quicker to get crabby (he calls it, “not suffering fools gladly”), but also usually quick to realize when he was a little too hot-tempered. He’s quick to apologize and forget the argument even happened.
Kari, on the other hand, is very slow to anger but when she’s really steaming, she also takes a longer time to calm down.
It’s important to respect that your spouse may anger differently, argue differently, and release that tension differently. Just as you cannot expect them to see everything the way you see it, you can’t expect them to feel things the way you do, either.
On that note,
Respect the other person’s recovery process
One the fight has reached its peak and some agreement is reached, there’s going to be a process of healing and recovery and return to intimacy, and that’s different for each person.
In our marriage, Jeremy is almost always the first to forgive and forget, often to Kari’s bewilderment.
Jeremy describes his process this way:
Often, as the fight reaches the ridiculous peaks (like they often do), I will suddenly tire of the fight and switch emotions at the top of the “hill”. I’ll tell a joke or make some physically funny gesture that stops the fight cold in its tracks. It’s like riding an argument up like an elevator. Whenever we reach the floor I think is high enough, I’ll step off the “anger” elevator and get one another one, and ride that back down. It’s not deliberate – it’s just a way out of tension that works for me.
Kari’s process is very different:
I have to internally process the argument afterward and review it in an internal monologue. Sometimes I know I’m too mad to think objectively, so I like to step away, review the situation and what happened, and think about how I really feel. I have to let the anger subside, sometimes by talking myself out of being angry.
The anger doesn’t stay, but it can take hours before I feel back to normal.
Neither process is better than the other. But both have to be respected and understood. Jeremy can usually move on very quickly but that doesn’t mean Kari can do that, and he has to respect the time it may take for her to feel better.
Your spouse has a specific process of recovering after a fight. Learn it and embrace it as part of what makes your spouse that wonderfully unique person you married.
(By the way, we envy those couples who have wild make-up sex after a rip-roaring argument; that’s never been our process, dang it.)
Having it out is better than holding it in.
The last rule of our Dirty Dozen about fighting fair is pretty simple: it’s always better to have the argument than it is to bottle it up.
Little problems grow into massive ones if they are left unattended. It’s never fun to bring up a concern to your spouse, but it’s far better to do that than slowly start to harbor resentment toward them.
Some grievances may not seem like a big enough deal to bring up, but its often better to talk it out than make assumptions or put your own motives on others.
Here’s an example: Jeremy works from a home office most of the time, so it’s easy for the family to ask him to step away from his work to do things they need him to do. Because he often can do it for brief moments of the day, Jeremy does so.
But over time, he begins to get irritated and finally resentful that the family doesn’t seem to respect his work, just because he’s at his desk in his study instead of 20 miles away at an office like Kari is.
Instead of bringing it up, Jeremy will finally get very angry at the interruptions, and usually, one family member (the last one who asked for something) takes the brunt of his frustration.
That’s not fair to the family member. Jeremy realizes he needs to set firmer boundaries long before they become a significant frustration to him.
Especially if you follow the first eleven rules, it should be easier to bring up issues with your spouse instead of just keeping quiet and being bitter about it. Remember that the purpose of a fight is to solve an issue, not to beat your spouse in a shouting match. If you approach your marriage fights in that light, bringing up (or hearing) grievances is easier to do because you are both working toward a solution that strengthens your marriage, not breaks it down with bickering.
That’s our Dirty Dozen on fighting fair! What did we leave out? What other rules do you believe make for resolving disagreements in your marriage? Answer in the comments below!