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Now & Forever: Lovers' Quarrels

What you fight about now won't even create a stir in a few years. Guess what will take its place?

It's not news that couples argue. But have you ever had the same argument with maddening regularity for more than a decade?

Jeff and Marcia can't remember a time when they didn't have at least one big fight every month—almost always about money. Their most recent shouting match began after Jeff looked through the mail and noticed the balance on their credit card. He blamed his wife for overspending, since she makes more purchases than he does. Marcia accused Jeff of wasting money on his computer and stereo hobbies. After 11 years of marriage, they still don't agree on how to manage their money.

No matter how long you've been married or what you argue about, there are ways to use your disagreements to build a healthier marriage. For starters, it helps to understand the source of your conflict. And, research shows, what couples argue about and the intensity of their disagreements change over the course of marriage.

Early Years

Fighting the "Foes Without"
Alicia and Joe are newlyweds who argue repeatedly—and heatedly—about her family. Recently, just as they were leaving for a movie, Alicia's mother called. The conversation dragged on as Alicia and her mother discussed how they could get Alicia's father to go to the doctor for a checkup. Joe repeatedly pointed to his watch, mouthing the words, "It's time to go. We're going to be late!" Alicia looked away, thinking, "It would be rude to tell Mom I have to hang up when she's so worried about Dad."

She finally got off the phone, but they didn't go to the movie. Instead, they spent the night fighting.

For Joe, this was just one more example of Alicia putting her family ahead of him. In Alicia's mind, their argument confirmed that Joe hated her parents. They are no different than many couples who, early in marriage, argue most frequently about in-laws. For other couples, most arguments center around ties to old friends, especially old flames. Arguments rooted in jealousy are common at this stage.

Disagreements like Alicia's and Joe's reflect a crucial task facing couples in the first few years of marriage—developing an identity as a couple. In part, couples have to define "who is in" and "who is out" of their relationship. Joe feels Alicia's parents are way too "in" their marriage, and he resents it.

After newlyweds define who they are as a couple, they next must face a long list of decisions about how roles and duties will be divided up. This is a challenging task that requires honest communication so a couple can work together on the best solutions. The couples who come out of this stage the strongest are the ones who develop a clear and stable sense of "us" so they can approach life as a team.

Something as seemingly minor as dinnertime tested Paula and Doug's ability to work as a team. Early in their marriage, they had a number of dinnertime disagreements. Paula's mother worked outside the home and often wasn't home for dinner. Her stepfather prepared a meal for her and her brother on the nights when her mom was gone. Doug's mother, in contrast, almost always made dinner for him and his siblings. He came into marriage expecting that Paula would do likewise. Paula, however, expected Doug to pitch in and help.

Frustrated with the reccurring argument, they finally discussed their conflicting expectations and how their expectations were formed. Having done that, they were able to reach a compromise that worked for both of them: Paula would cook on weeknights and Doug would cook on weekends, and whoever didn't cook would do the dishes.

Middle Years

Battling the "Foes Within"
Arguments in the middle years of marriage focus less on friends, relatives and household chores and more on communication, sex and the kids. The sources of conflict shift from the "foes without" (relationships outside the home) to the "foes within" (relationships inside the home). Once the in-law and friend issues are resolved, there are plenty of problems to work on at home.

Consider a typical argument between Cathy and Kyle, who have been married 14 years.

Cathy: I think you were too hard on Timmy when you yelled at him for dropping his ice cream cone in the car.

Kyle: He wasn't paying attention to what he was doing. How do you think he's going to learn? (Kyle turns away and begins to leave the room.)

Cathy: Well, the only thing he's going to learn from you is how to yell. Why are you walking away? We need to talk about this!

Kyle: (As he continues walking.) Who made you the authority on what he needs? You're so soft on Timmy you're going to ruin him.

Cathy: You always shut me out when you get mad. That's so childish. (A look of contempt crosses her face as Kyle walks out the door.)

By the time Kyle checked out of the argument, a discussion about parenting styles had turned into a fight over poor communication and how the couple worked through conflict. It's not surprising that couples in the middle years of marriage argue about their kids. At this stage of life, couples devote significant resources to the needs of their children. Decisions about discipline, education and lifestyle offer plenty of opportunities for conflict.

But many people don't realize the importance of what happens during an argument. Conflict that is kept within proper boundaries usually leads to a greater understanding between spouses and a problem being solved. But if couples allow their arguments to degenerate into endless critiques of one another and character assassination, the arguments soon strike at the very core of the other person. Cathy and Kyle ended their conversation with personal attacks. Research indicates that such arguments are the most destructive and painful of all because they tear at the fabric of a couple's sense of connection and intimacy.

If arguments regularly lead to personal attacks, over time a couple will consider the atmosphere unsafe for openly discussing their inner desires, fears and needs. To reverse this trend, couples in the second stage of marriage need to take turns listening to each other, refrain from personal attacks, and be willing to risk speaking directly about their concerns.

Later Years

Renewing Your Friendship
While couples in the third stage of marriage continue to argue, they tend to argue less intensely and less negatively than they did in the past. That's good news, because how you argue has a tremendous impact on how you feel about your marriage.

What changes most in this stage is the nature of the family. Couples have entered (or are approaching) the empty-nest years. Dave and Claudia Arp, in their book The Second Half of Marriage (Zondervan), detail the particular joys and strains of these years. And with Americans living longer, there can be a lot of these years! In essence, the Arps point out that the most crucial task for couples in the third stage of marriage is to deepen and re-invigorate friendship and connection as a twosome.

Allison and Bill are what researchers would call a "survivor" couple. In a society where most marriages don't make it, they've been married 33 years and their commitment is secure. The last of their three children has moved out, and, like many couples, Allison and Bill have lost some closeness over the years. They both feel awkward about how to be friends—just playing together or talking about matters that have nothing to do with problems or the kids.

They have a choice to make: They can either shift the focus of their lives toward building their friendship and marriage or they can each pursue individual interests. Hopefully, they'll pursue renewed friendship.

To reclaim their lost friendship, Bill and Allison will need to make time for talking like friends talk-a chat over a second cup of coffee or during an evening walk. Too many couples let this time slip away during the years of raising kids, working and paying off the mortgage. In addition, they need to learn to talk about the things friends talk about—interests, dreams and current events.

Couples in the later years of marriage also need to protect their "friendship time" by agreeing not to talk about problems or conflicts during the times they set aside for friendship. When conflicts are not likely to erupt, most couples are surprised at how relaxed their talks become and this atmosphere, in turn, helps foster deeper bonds.

Protecting Your Marriage

It's important to recognize how the issues you struggle with change over the years. But more important than what you argue about is how you argue. Research shows that how you deal with divisive issues—no matter what your problems are—is what counts. Here are three tips to help you handle conflict constructively.

1. Face it head-on. Set time aside, even if it's just 30 minutes a week, to discuss specific problems that are causing conflict. Don't wait for the tension to build until it explodes into an unproductive argument.

Larry and Denise had regular arguments about how to spend their Saturdays. It was usually late morning before they agreed on what to do, greatly frustrating Larry who worked 50 or more hours a week and was serious about doing fun things together on the weekend. Denise would get angry because she felt Larry expected her to be ready to go out at a moment's notice to who knows where. They agreed to talk every Thursday night about any issues that were coming up, which included making weekend plans. This simple strategy turned Saturday from a day they dreaded into a day they eagerly anticipated.

2. Try some teamwork. Instead of viewing each other as opponents, realize that you're both fighting on the same side to reach a solution that will benefit both of you. When you work together against a problem rather than against one another, you reduce defensiveness and affirm your basic sense of "us."

One of the best ways to foster "oneness" is to use words that reflect your desire to be a team. When you say, "How can we handle this issue better?" or "I would really like us to deepen our friendship," your words convey a clear sense of being united.

3. Become better friends. People get married because they want to spend the rest of their life with their best friend, not because they're looking for someone to fight with. But friendship will wither and die if it doesn't receive adequate time and attention. After 35 years of married life, Maggie and Wallace are better friends than ever. Several times a week they take a walk together. They talk about all sorts of stuff, but they follow one simple rule: no problems and no conflicts are allowed during this time. Their friendship time is a chance to unwind and reconnect.

All couples disagree, and sometimes disagreements turn into arguments. But if you remember to confront your problems as a team—and take the time to protect and deepen your friendship—your marriage won't just survive, it will thrive.

Scott Stanley, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist specializing in research on marriage. He is the co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, and co-author of the book Fighting for Your Marriage: Positive Steps for Preventing Divorce and Preserving a Lasting Love (Jossey-Bass).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Conflict; Disagreement; Marriage
Today's Christian Woman, Winter, 1996
Posted September 12, 2008

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