Emotions run high during a fight. Yet sometime later, we may have forgotten what triggered our rage in the first place. We recall fighting, but what was it about anyway?
Lauren later remembered the details about a fight with her husband because she’d written about it in her journal. “Though I don’t like the word ‘fight,’” she said, “because we don’t hit or anything like that. But I was so furious it felt like a fight.”
Lauren had told Jim a number of times not to interrupt her while she was praying. Praying was a sacred time for her, like meditation. Whatever he wanted to say could wait. It was never an emergency. More likely, he just wanted her to stop right then and listen to him. Often, he hoped she’d hurry up because he wanted her attention very soon. The last time that happened, Lauren tried to ignore him but was too upset to focus. When finished, she approached Jim, who was now in the kitchen washing dishes. “I’ve told you more than once not to interrupt me when I’m praying,” she said irritated.
“There’s no law that says you can’t talk to someone who’s praying,” he shot back.
“I still don’t want you to interrupt me,” she said, taking in his arrogant tone.
Then she noticed that Jim was using a dish soap said to contain toxic chemicals instead of the safer one she bought to replace it. She reminded him to use the new dish soap, which still had enough left for the job.
Jim’s response was an angry, “Okay, but when this (the safer soap) is empty, I’m going to use the other one.
How dare he threaten me? thought Lauren. He should know that I buy back up supplies. She said she was upset with him for using that tone.
Jim’s response: “I’m sorry that you feel upset.”
Lauren tells herself, “That’s not an apology. His ‘sorry’ means he doesn’t think he did anything wrong; he just wishes I wasn’t upset.”
Lauren Takes Time to Reflect
Lauren had to get away. Outside, she walked around her neighborhood. Her first thought was that Jim should sleep in the den that night. Cuddling with him in bed was usually so comforting, but now she didn’t want him close.
As Lauren continued to walk, her breathing slowed down. She felt calm enough to use the self-talk communication technique she’d learned from her therapist. This five-step process usually helped her move from angst to a more accepting attitude. Now, she did each step:
- What am I telling myself? “He’s a jerk and doesn’t love me.”
- Is my message to myself helpful? “No, it makes me feel like he doesn’t care about me.”
- Where is my message coming from? “It’s coming from my tendency to catastrophize and fail to look at the big picture. I feel like I can’t have anything to do with him because he’s acting short-tempered and unapologetic.”
- What more helpful message can I give myself? “Most of the time, Jim’s a wonderful husband. He’s usually kind, helpful, and respectful. He’s not perfect, and I’m not either. He tolerates my shortcomings. I want to accept him as a whole package, with many fine traits and also some faults.”
- What is my action plan now? “I’ll sleep in the bedroom with him but probably not cuddle. I’ll see how I feel. I think I need a real apology before I can let down my guard.”
Lauren felt better after clarifying her thoughts and feelings. She also turned to her religion’s teachings, which stress the importance of creating fulfilling marriages. “G-d is helping me get outside of myself, view things more objectively. I want a real apology, but I do need to view this incident as a small piece of the big picture, which is quite good.”
Thinking it over, she felt more understanding of why Jim was so short-tempered. He sometimes gets that way when he’s hungry. Also, he hates washing dishes by hand. The dishwasher broke, and the replacement hadn’t come yet. So Jim was already in a bad mood when she criticized him for using the wrong soap.
None of these things excuse his rudeness, Lauren thought, “but understanding helps me to feel like our fight was minor in the grand scheme of things.”
When Jim cautiously approached her for their usual bedtime good-night hug that night, he looked at her tentatively. As Lauren opened her arms, she saw relief in his smile.
Both knew they were on the road to recovery. The “talk” came in the morning.
When it did, Lauren said, “This isn’t about whether or not a rule exists about interrupting someone’s prayers. It’s about me wanting to feel respected by you. Please don’t talk to me while I’m praying, because this is what I want.”
Jim gave a real apology for his harsh tone. He also agreed to avoid talking to Lauren while she was praying.
A few days later, Lauren had to wrack her brain to remember what they’d fought about.
Good Marriages Have Unresolvable Conflicts
If you’re in a good marriage, you might relate to the experience of forgetting what you were fighting about soon after making up.
Psychologist John Gottman’s marriage research has shown that a whopping 69% of relationship conflicts are about perpetual problems. All couples have them, and they don’t go away.
While cooling off from their fight, Lauren recognized two of their unresolvable conflicts: she practices their religion more strictly than Jim, and he cares less about details than she does, like which dish soap to use.
Couples Who Succeed Manage Differences Well
Gottman concludes that instead of solving their perpetual problems, what seems to be important is whether or not a couple can establish a dialogue about them, which means address their issues respectfully. If they cannot create such a conversation, the conflict becomes gridlocked. The gridlocked conflict eventually leads to emotional disengagement.
Because Lauren and Jim were able to talk about their conflict constructively, they were able to repair the breach and resume a loving relationship. They managed their conflict successfully, restoring faith in each other.
Each time we manage conflict well, we gain trust in our ability to deal with future ones successfully. A happily-ever-after marriage? Not the fairy tale false notion, but the real-life one: conflict is normal in marriage and other close relationships.
Proactive Practice Keeps Love Flowing
Even though some conflict is inevitable and healthy, couples who are proactive can vastly decrease the time spent around fighting. By holding a weekly marriage meeting, partners increase intimacy, teamwork, and smoother resolution of issues. Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love tells step by step how to hold these short, gentle conversations.
Spouses are not going to see eye to eye on everything. Yet they can learn how to repair the relationship after a quarrel. They can also be proactive in increasing intimacy and preventing misunderstandings and grudges.
As Mignon McLauchlin says: “A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person.”