One of the best compliments my husband, Jim, and I ever received was from friends who decided to get married based, in part, on our example. The four of us spent a lot of time together when they were dating, and they saw us at our best and our worst. And it was our worst that clinched it for them. One evening, they told us, "You guys have shown us that it's possible to argue with someone you love."
Jim and I are known for our bickering. We argue about everything from how much garlic to put in the spaghetti sauce to the best way to pile leaves into a leaf bag. While all our petty arguing can be annoying to others, it's a big part of what makes our marriage work.
Before I met Jim, I dated a guy who brought out a nasty part of my personality, a part that enjoyed pushing people around. He was so passive he let me make every decision. Eventually, I became frustrated with him and pushed harder. That relationship taught me I needed to marry a man who wouldn't let me tell him what to do, who'd call me on my bossiness, and stand up to my stubbornness.
So when Jim and I had our first argument after dating less than two weeks, I knew I'd met my match. He wasn't about to let me tell him what to do or accept my sometimes-illogical opinions as fact. Granted, plenty of times I wish he'd let me have my way without a challenge, but deep down I know our lay-it-out-there style of solving problems is right for us.
We argue mostly about little things. When it comes to major decisions, like buying a house or disciplining our kids, we almost always agree. But when it comes to the best way to load the dishwasher, we can't get through the conversation without a little bickering.
But our bickering has served a purpose in our marriage. I'm not great at identifying and sharing my emotions. So when I snap at Jim about something inconsequential, he knows something's up and treads lightly. He's learned that a few well-chosen questions about my day can defuse my frustrations and revive my civil side. Similarly, when Jim is short with me, I know it's because he's stressed. If I read his signals correctly, I can help him relax and let go of whatever's bothering him. Sometimes these little fights help us identify broader marital issues we might not see otherwise. Our bickering is a barometer of how each of us, and our relationship, is doing.
In a weird way, our little arguments have also brought us closer. When we're snippy with each other for a few days in a row, we eventually get sick of ourselves. Then we usually work together to break the pattern. Jim might don his big rabbit-fur hat to lighten a tense conversation (it's hard to be upset with a guy who looks like Elmer Fudd). We've even sung our arguments to show tunes. (Try "There's no reason to be bossy; I'm just trying to cook!" sung to the tune of "There's No Business like Show Business.")
Bickering is simply part of who we are as a couple. We're nothing if not honest with each other. I don't ever have to guess how Jim feels about something—he's sure to let me know. And I feel safe letting him see my less-than-pleasant side, because I know he can handle it.
Now, of course, extensive arguing can tear apart a marriage. So we're careful not to go too far and hurt each other's feelings. We try to prevent our "discussions" over little things from escalating into major arguments. We have to make sure our kids, families, and friends see more love than animosity between us. Most of all, we have to remember we're committed to being together for the rest of our lives, and that will take a lot of work.
Marriage isn't for the faint of heart. When two strong-willed people like us try to build a life together, there's bound to be friction. But I wouldn't trade our bickering for anything.
Carla Barnhill, a freelance writer and editor, is author of The Myth of the Perfect Mother (Baker). She lives in Minnesota.