Don't fight to win

Eight rules for how to argue with your spouse.

argument couple 88 (photo credit: )
argument couple 88
(photo credit: )
Arguments are going to happen in marriage. Two people living together are bound to generate friction. Indeed, having no disagreements at all might be a sign that your marriage has entered the dangerous "doppelganger" realm where you have become so alike that you are fused into the same person. Differentiation is a necessary component of passion, and marital friction can turn out to be as much a source of light as it is heat. But in order for the healthy sparks in marriage not to grow into a consuming conflagration, it's essential that you learn to fight fair, never hitting below the belt. Conflict resolution is a necessary skill in every relationship, especially marriage, and its essence is learning how to disagree without becoming disagreeable. During the heat of battle husbands and wives often forget that they are lovers not combatants, intimate friends rather than distant enemies. They are out to wound each other rather than resolve honest differences. If you were at war, it would make sense to destroy your enemy. But you're in your own kitchen, for goodness sake, arguing with the person who means the most to you in the whole world, and you should not be out to win an argument, but to convey your viewpoint and achieve consensus. MARRIAGE SHOULD be about losing arguments and winning relationships. If you want really want to do battle, join the army and fight to your heart's content. But if you want to live harmoniously amid accepting that marital altercations are somewhat unavoidable, here are the eight rules that should never be broken (along with my confession of having broken most at one point or another):
  • No name calling. Ever. Don't call your spouse "stupid," "stubborn," or "idiot." Certainly, never use expletives like the "B" word, which comes in both the masculine and feminine variety. Name calling is the classic sign that you intend to hurt rather than heal, to maim rather than mend. Included in name-calling are words like "shallow," "materialistic," "arrogant," and "selfish." With each of these words you will simply offend your spouse and put them on the defensive, virtually guaranteeing their own reprisals and an escalation of the conflict.
  • Criticize behavior rather than character. Never say, "You're such a stubborn person," but rather, "I think you're being stubborn on this issue," or even better, "I feel you're not really listening to what I'm saying." Don't say, "You're incredibly self-centered," but rather "Please think about my feelings on this subject and not just your own."
  • Never bring your spouse's family into the argument. "You're just like your mother," is always a low blow. It suggests your spouse is a victim of genetic inferiority. It also suggests that they are born a certain way and cannot control their behavior. You're also insulting people they love. Telling him he's a hothead just like his father will simply get his back up and goad him to strike back by attacking your family. Bringing uninvolved family members is also an act of alienation. It is a way of telling your spouse, "You're not even related to me, but to those misfits who behave just as weirdly as you do." Alienation is the very heart of real conflict, treating your spouse as a distant 'other' rather than what they really are, bone of your bone, and flesh of your flesh.
  • Never speak in anger. Control your temper, and if you can't, refrain from saying anything until you've calmed down. Speaking in anger will make you sound like you're attacking your spouse. And speaking about things that upset you while you are angry is only going to make things worse. Words are to anger as fuel is to fire. Nothing good ever comes out of words uttered in anger. Later you'll come with your tail between your legs and say that you didn't mean all the mean things you said. But the damage will have been done. Wait till you're calm, even a few minutes. Go and take a walk outside. Count to one hundred. Then have the conversation.
  • Don't cut each other off. Wait till the person finishes, then state your view. Cutting off your spouse in mid-sentence is a terrible sign of disrespect and is bound to lead to a shouting match, rather than to being heard. Which leads us to the next point.
  • Don't yell. You'll frighten the children a well as each other. Yelling is a sign that you're out of control. Your face becomes contorted and twisted, looking sinister and scary. You sound unreasonable and mean-spirited. You're not particularly lovable when you yell. Worse, yelling at someone is an assault and invites them to yell right back. Soon, the house is at fever pitch and the children are using their pillows to cover their ears. And yelling is so loud is causes an echo. What you're saying will never be absorbed. It will just bounce back, thereby ensuring your point is never made or accepted.
  • Don't go to sleep until you have peacefully settled an argument. You'll wake up distant, angry, and the argument will fester. You'll slowly grow apart. You'll get used to sleeping in different beds or worse, different rooms. Better to stay up, barely sleep, talk and be tired the net day then proceed with unresolved anger toward your spouse.
  • Finally, always apologize if you've been hurtful. There are no excuses. Apologize even if you're right. You're still wrong to argue. I learned from a story about the Lubavitcher Rebbe that its better to lose an argument and win a relationship, then win an argument and lose a friend. This is especially true in marriage where your spouse is your best friend. It always surprises me that so many of the husbands and wives I counsel would rather score points in an argument and feel vindicated - even if it means going days on end without communicating or sleeping in the same bed as their spouse - then simply apologize. In marriage, better to make peace and never be lonely, then to insist on your personal righteousness and feel distant from your spouse. You were once single. Clearly, you preferred marriage. So let's keep it that way. The writer hosts a daily national radio show on "Oprah and Friends." His new book The Broken American Male has just been released.