"You're trying to change me," Leslie blurted out over a dinner of macaroni and cheese.
"What are you talking about?" I asked with all the pretense of surprise I could muster. Truth is, I was trying to change her, I just didn't want her to know that.
It had been tense in our little apartment ever since we got home from work. The tension between us had something to do with Leslie not being as organized in the kitchen as I wanted her to be. I made some inane critical comment about not being able to find something I could always find in my kitchen growing up. Well, OK, it wasn't the first critical comment I'd made that week, or even that evening.
"I'm talking about the way you make snippy comments," Leslie said. "No matter what I do, it's not good enough."
"That's not true," I said defensively. "Give me one good example of how I'm so critical." That was a mistake. For the next several minutes she tossed out a specific example, and then I'd explain how reasonable my critical comment was. We were playing a game of mental Ping-Pong that no one would win. Actually, it was our first fight as a married couple. And after the blowup, I sat helpless, not knowing where to go or what to do.
I (Leslie) knew exactly where I wanted to go—back home. And I probably would have if Chicago hadn't been 2,000 miles away. Sitting in that tiny kitchen in the middle of Los Angeles, beginning graduate school as well as a marriage, I wanted nothing more than to be somewhere safe and welcoming. Sure, it's a cliche, the new bride "running home to Mom," but it wouldn't exist if it didn't contain a kernel of truth. Turns out a lot of newly married women, as well as their husbands, experience this urge in the aftermath of their first fights. We've seen it countless times with the couples we've counseled.
Safe at Home
One pair of newlyweds we know had a big blowup, after which the bride called her mom across town to come and pick her up. In ten minutes her dad was there to whisk the young woman back to the house. He took a circuitous route back and when he finally pulled into the driveway, his daughter ran to the front door. Once inside, she found her husband standing alone in the living room.
"What are you doing here?" she asked him.
"Your mom came by as soon as you left and said she wanted me to come over," he said. The young couple looked at each other in bewilderment. Then they looked out the front window to see her mom and dad driving away. That's when they both cracked up and soon forgot what they were fighting about.
The message this seasoned couple was sending their daughter and son-in-law was clear: you can't retreat to work out your problems. You have to face them together. So why do so many new couples want to put distance between themselves and their problems? Primarily because it feels safe. When new spouses experience the jolts of their first big argument, they realize that not everything in their marriage is going to go as planned. They feel uncertain. But one thing they know for sure, there's a place at home. And some naive part of us deep inside yearns to return to that place of solace.
We might retreat to the kind of ice cream we liked as kids or to a photo album that reminds us we were once safe and protected. Whatever the method, all couples seek a safe place. But over time, we need to learn to be safe with each other—and this can happen when we learn to fight fair.
Pick a Better Fight
Arguments are never pleasant. Still, we can minimize the unpleasantness and actually see our marriages strengthened by learning how to have a good fight. Here are three strategies that will help you the next time you find yourselves embroiled in a heated argument.
Recognize the ways conflict can strengthen your marriage. When Les and I had our first fight, I was convinced there was something terribly wrong with us. I believed that loving couples didn't fight. Turns out I couldn't have been more wrong.
The goal of marriage is not to avoid conflict, but to use it to build a stronger relationship. In fact, conflict is the price smart couples pay for a deepening sense of intimacy. Without conflict it is difficult to peel away the superficial layers of a relationship and discover who we really are. When Ruth Bell Graham was asked if she and her famous husband, Billy, ever fight, she said, "I hope so. Otherwise we would have no differences, and life would be pretty boring."
We're all imperfect, and so is the world we live in. So it makes sense that there are no perfect marriages. But many of us still expect our marriage to be different. This unrealistic expectation alone ignites countless conflicts. Every day spouses run up against desires, big and small, that collide with each other. It's a natural component of every healthy marriage. So start viewing your differences as one more way you can cultivate a deeper sense of intimacy.
Remember that it's not if you fight, it's how you fight. If something is bothering you, it's always best to bring it up so you can talk about it. Of equal importance is how you handle any conflict that comes from the discussion.
First, whenever you notice tension in your relationship, plan a peace conference. Schedule a mutually agreeable "appointment" to discuss what's bothering you. This takes initiative, but a face-to-face meeting is critical if you hope to resolve your differences.
Next, cultivate a win-win attitude. In other words, seek to understand your partner's perspective before trying to "prove your case." Too many spouses become instant attorneys, trying to convince an invisible jury that they have been treated unjustly and that their partner should be found guilty. Don't prove your own innocence. Instead, put yourself in your mate's place and try to see the world from his or her perspective. In fighting fair the point is not to win by proving your partner wrong, the goal is to understand one another so you both win.
Attack the problem, not the person. You are not going to change your spouse through arguing. A natural impulse during conflict is to defend and protect your position, not to accommodate the other person.
If you accuse your spouse of always making you late for church, it's not likely that she'll say, "Oh, you're right. I'll be different from now on." She will probably tell you that you only make things worse by pressuring her, or that you are too impatient, or a hundred other reasons why she's not at fault. So instead of making accusations, focus on the problem of being late and work together to devise a way to avoid it.
As you seek solutions together, you'll need to compromise, be open to new approaches and sometimes yield to your partner's preferences. In the beginning, it won't be easy. But with a cooperative attitude, you will save yourself and your marriage a lot of unnecessary grief. And you won't feel like running home to Mom.
Leslie Parrott, Ed.D., and Les Parrott, Ph.D., are co-directors of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University. They are the authors of Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, Becoming Soul Mates and Relationships (all published by Zondervan). Visit Les and Leslie at www.RealRelationships.com.
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