When it comes to arguing, my husband, Paul, and I have two different approaches: He wears his feelings on his sleeve; I hide mine up my sleeve. You know when Paul is angry or frustrated—it's out there for the world to see. I learned quickly that to confront him or challenge him when he's angry can be like throwing gasoline on a fire. Over the years he's learned that his outward show of emotion can make others uncomfortable, and he's worked hard at keeping a leash on it. Sometimes he succeeds; sometimes he doesn't.
On the other hand, I've made an art of hiding emotions.
"What's the matter, Kate?"
"Something's bugging you—are you mad at me?"
"No, I'm fine."
Of course Paul became frustrated with that pattern. On rare occasions, the pressure inside blew my lid off, and I expressed my anger all right! I used every communication no-no there is: You always … you never … you're so … Then I felt like a communication failure and shut up again.
So Paul tiptoed around my hidden emotions (whatever they were) while trying to keep his from spilling all over the floor, while I was uptight about saying words that are profitable but not flammable in the heat of an argument. Trying to defuse stress had become stressful for both of us.
And then came e-mail. The first time we "argued" online, it went something like this:
Paul: Kate, about last night—I'm really sorry I reacted like I did. I guess I was really tired, and when you said we had a commitment on Friday night, it just put me over the top. I'd been thinking about how glad I'd be when the work week is over, and now we have to do something on Friday night. I wasn't really angry at you, but I took it out on you, and I'm sorry.
Kate:I realized that, but your strong response stunned me, and I did feel like you were blaming me. I don't appreciate when you take things out on me. I'm not your enemy. I'm your wife, and I love you. We can't always have things go the way we want, but we can make the best of them. Let's look at it as an opportunity to be together rather than a commitment we weren't planning on.
? Yes, it worked beautifully13%
? Yes, it worked okay20%
? Yes, but it didn't work well5%
? No 59%
—994 MP respondents
Paul:You're right. That's a good way to look at it. But let's try not to make it a late night. It's been a long week, and I'm really worn out. Can we hold Saturday night as a family night and home-base it?
Kate:I agree. Maybe we can just rent a couple dvds and kick back with the kids and chill.
That was much better! I could reread what I'd written and delete and reword the phrases that just didn't come out right. Our exchange of words was calm, rational, and productive. When we arrived home from work that day, we had big warm hugs and I'm-sorry kisses for each other.
When Paul and I got married, we received lots of advice from experienced couples. More than once Ephesians 4:26 was quoted to us: "In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry." Perhaps you've heard it too: I'll tell you the secret to a happy marriage: George and I have always settled our arguments before going to bed because Scripture says …
But Scripture also says, "A man finds joy in giving an apt reply—and how good is a timely word!" and "A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver" (Proverbs 15:23; 25:11, italics added). I've been married more than 20 years, and now I find myself in the position of passing nuggets of marital wisdom to younger couples. I'd pass these two on right alongside the one about the sun not going down on your anger. In our marriage, they go hand-in-hand.
Although most of our arguments aren't solved through e-mail, most are at least addressed online. We independently take the time to pray and ask God to show each of us what part we played in igniting the argument or fanning its flames. We repent to God, then we repent to each other when we get to the keyboard the next morning. By that time the Holy Spirit has usually dealt with each of us.
When we use e-mail to resolve an argument, we can take the time to put in words what we're really feeling without the heat of the moment choosing our words or distracting us from really "hearing" each other. As clearly as possible, we share our perspectives and make sure we're understood. That lays the foundation for resolution.
Paul:I understand what you're saying, but I don't agree. We obviously need to work through this. Let's take some time tonight to sit down and talk about it more.
And we do. We've always arrived at resolution as a result. While we may need to compromise and adjust our expectations, we always maintain respect for each other in the process.
Although we would never advocate replacing marital conversations, discussions, or arguments with e-mail, we've found it's often a valuable first step toward verbal interaction and agreement.
For Paul and me, e-mail provides the opportunity to give a "timely" and "aptly spoken" word. Although the argument may not be settled by the time the sun goes down, we are committed to resolving it. When we take the time to listen to and understand each other's perspective in the calmer, cooler setting of cyberspace, resolution comes quicker and more thoroughly.
Kate V. Bryant, a freelance author, has been married to Paul for 21 years.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.