Mr. Curry and I were in a fight last night, which derailed, as it often does this last year, into a fight about how we fight, who is doing what wrong and how often they do it and why it makes us crazy and unable to get anywhere. You interrupted me! I told you how I felt and you responded without even acknowledging my feelings! You talk too long! You take to long to get to the point! You changed the subject! You already said that! Are you having fun yet?
We agree on certain rules: no cursing (which, if we are alone, sometimes is jettisoned and a few shits or damnits come out) no name-calling (maybe the most important rule, which we always stick to) no loud shouting or screaming (occasionally some shouting begins but we catch it). Outside of that, our arguments have deteriorated to the point where we really can't get anywhere when we are talking about an emotionally loaded subject. Our lives have a tremendous amount of stress, and always have, and there is no doubt that this greatly weakens our ability to think clearly and carefully when touching on painful problems. It is the result of incredibly stubborn people and love that endures and rises back when killed that we are the family we are. But problems in our marriage simmer. Threaten to boil.
For those with painful childhoods or simply events that careened out of their control during childhood, damaging them, marriage -- with its profound intimacy and constant negotiating of choices spoken and not -- reveals our personal fault lines in painful detail. This is often the underlying mess behind nasty fighting techniques. Empowering a marriage with 'tools' and 'techniques' isn't just lingo mumbo-jumbo, but a way for two people struggling with their own emotions and failing set of coping skills can work to actually communicate when angry.
Fighting fair is one of the most important guidelines of family life, and the couple at the helm are modeling for their children how to do so. A therapist, even if they cannot help fix the marriage, can offer a way to fight without going nuclear. Until then, here are five ways to fight fair:
1. A mutually understood and agreed-upon set of guidelines for arguing. Best case scenario: you could discuss over a few conversations what you both feel is most important, and agree to stick to those boundries. This gives you one less thing to argue over when one of you oversteps the boundries, so that instead of arguing over if the line should be there, you gently remind the other that hey, you both agreed not to call each other baboon butt morons. At least when the kids are listening.
2. Timing, timing, timing. While this is not going to happen 100 percent of the time, even a small change in the amount you take timing into consideration can have an important impact on your marital happiness. I know, for example, that my husband does not fight well after about 6pm. He just begins to shut down after that time, and trying to have a reasonable argument or disagreement for him is an enormous effort, using energy to not blow his top that normally would be put into compassion, thoughtful words or taking a step back. Knowing the time of day or week that your partner is least whole is knowing the times you should zip it, and talk it out later. A disagreement where one of you is resentfully participating in talking is never going to end well.
3. No stonewalling. This is such a serious problem in a relationship that Dr. Gottman, a well known and respected marriage researcher, calls it one of the "four horsemen of the apocalypse," meaning that it is one of the main indicators of a dying marriage. If you find yourself unable to respond, or respond reasonably, in an argument, say "I need to take a break, get myself together, and talk about this in an hour," but do not just clam up. Stonewalling sends a direct message to your partner that you are no longer willing to put forth any effort, of any kind.
4. Do not use all encompassing words like ' always ' and ' never ' even if it is true. Which it rarely is, although it may feel true. As kids those words made us feel impossibly stupid, incapable, disliked and gave us a sense of hopelessness which quickly turns to apathy. The same goes for adults. If you have to give context, use less abusive words that more clearly give a picture: "In the last month we have fought over this three times, have you noticed? I feel really frustrated and would like to figure out what we need to do." Even hissed, that sounds a lot less hateful than "You never give a shit about the house and I'm sick of it."
5. Agree not to interrupt, and take note of how long you talk for. When I get upset with Mr. Curry I can talk and talk and talk long past when I've said what I cared to say. For me, it's exactly the same as blathering when you get nervous. I have to constantly remind myself to focus on getting my point across succinctly. Most people have a tendency or desire to interrupt during an argument, and a small amount won't be damaging, but when your arguments are filled with interruptions, the number one message is that no one is really listening.
I just want to move past the opening arguments and get to the make up sex. Don't you?
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