Q. When my husband and I got married, my aunt pulled me aside and told me not to be afraid of fighting—that as long as we "kept things fair" it could be a step toward strengthening our relationship, and not a marital death sentence. My parents divorced when I was young, and all I remember of their relationship is the constant bickering. Could my aunt be right?
A. Some time ago a couple came to see us because they were scared to death of getting a divorce. They had been married a couple of years and both had come from families where their parents had split. Every time this young couple encountered a potential conflict, they buried it. If they got into an argument, they reasoned divorce was only a few steps away. As a result, they were both walking around like a couple of simmering volcanoes wondering which one was going to erupt first.
This couple, like so many others we have seen, mistakenly assumed that if their marriage was free from conflict, if they could just repress it and stomp it out, they could protect their union from divorce. This belief is a myth. The truth is that buried conflict has a high rate of resurrection. If something is bothering one of you, it is always best to put it out on the table and discuss it. The bottom line is this: Far more important than whether you argue is how you argue. So here's a few tips on how to fight fair.
First, when you experience tension in your relationship, plan a peace conference. Don't ignore the conflict, hoping it will disappear. Set a mutually agreeable "appointment" time to discuss what is bothering you. This takes initiative, but it is critically important to schedule a face-to-face meeting if you are to resolve conflict in your relationship.
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 when it comes to marital conflict, convincing an invisible jury that they have been treated unjustly and that their partner should be found guilty. Don't fall for this strategy. Instead, put yourself in your husband's shoes and try to see the world from his perspective. In fighting fair, the point is not to prove your partner wrong and win, the goal is to understand one another so you both win.
This leads to another tip: Attack the problem not the person. You are not going to change your spouse through arguing. Our natural impulse during conflict is to defend and protect our position, not to accommodate the other person, even when it's our mate. If you accuse your husband of always making you late, he is probably not going to say, "Oh, you're right. I'll be different from now on." He is more likely to tell you that you only make it worse by pressuring him, or that you are too impatient, or a hundred other reasons why he is not at fault. You will be far more productive if you focus on the problem and work together, as a team, to devise a way of avoiding it.
Overall, be cooperative. Be willing to flex and yield to your partner. Scripture says, "Wisdom … is peace-loving and courteous. It allows discussion and is willing to yield to others; it is full of mercy and good deeds. It is wholehearted and straightforward and sincere" (James 3:17, TLB). If you decide to have a cooperative attitude with your partner you will save yourself and your marriage a lot of unnecessary grief. And you will have found the secret to fighting fair.
She Says I Don't Listen
Q. My wife's always on my case for not listening to her enough. She says I should know that listening is the most important part of good communication in marriage. When we were dating she loved to sit and hear me tell funny stories or my opinion on different topics. She never complained that I did more of the talking. But now she seems to think my listening skills are more important than my verbal skills. Can you help?
A. You are fortunate to have such a wise wife. We could not agree more with her statement about the importance of listening. In fact, we often tell couples that almost all of their conflicting conversations could be resolved if each partner would seek to understand before being understood—in other words, if each would learn to listen.
Listening is basic to learning. People who cannot hear must employ other means to receive messages because they would not be able to function otherwise. How much of communication consists of listening? According to research, it consumes more time than reading, speaking, and writing combined. When you consider this fact, it should not come as a surprise that good listening is a "must" for every successful marriage.
Spouses who feel cherished by their mates will tell you that they feel taken care of primarily because their spouse listens to them. Listening is love in action. Nowhere is it more appropriate than in marriage, yet many couples never truly listen to each other.
Listening is a sign of affirmation. When spouses truly listen, they contribute to one another's self-esteem. When they don't, the interpretation is frequently negative. Be honest. How do you feel when you're telling a story and you sense that your wife isn't listening to you? Without being listened to, feelings of rejection are almost inevitable.
Listening requires you to set aside preconceived ideas or judgments and convey a message of acceptance of the person. In fact, listening does not necessarily convey an acceptance of the message, but it does convey an acceptance of the messenger. Think about it. When you are genuinely listened to, you feel your spouse is someone with whom you can be fully known and share all of your inner thoughts, weaknesses, and foibles—because she accepts you.
Listening opens up another's spirit. When your spouse is speaking and you are not preoccupied or distracted, you are, in effect, saying, "You are important to me and I am interested in you." This taps into your partner's deepest need to be understood, and in return he or she opens up all the more.
Is In-Law Interference Inevitable?
Q. My wife and I both come from loving homes, and our families support our relationship. Now that my wife is six months pregnant, my friends keep warning me about the in-law issues that will arise when the child is born. We've never had any trouble with either set of in-laws, but I'm becoming increasingly worried about what may lie over the horizon. Are conflicts with in-laws inevitable?
A. Someone once observed that Adam and Eve got along as well as they did because neither had any in-laws to worry about. Maybe so, but they still had plenty of problems with which to deal. Problems are a part of life and while in-laws may add to those problems, they can also lighten the load.
It sounds as if you're off to a good start. Some couples couldn't be happier about their in-laws, while other couples feel that their in-laws are the source of most of their problems. Though conflict isn't inevitable, experts do believe that three-quarters of all married couples have problems with their in-laws.
Some of the most common in-law problems include keeping the son- or daughter-in-law at a distance, giving them the cold shoulder, or treating them as a person who has invaded the family and is not good enough for their son or daughter. Another common in-law problem is gift giving with strings attached. This occurs when in-laws offer some kind of help (monetary or otherwise) and then treat it as a license to tell you exactly how to use it. Of course, criticism is also a major in-law complaint by couples. Some in-laws constantly critique each and every choice a couple makes, intruding when they are not welcome. They may smother and hover over the marriage without making room for the couple to have privacy.
Lastly, one of the most surprising difficulties many newlyweds have with their in-laws is knowing how to address them. In the early years of marriage, many couples simply avoid calling their in-laws by name, and this can create tension. So if you have not yet settled this issue, put it out on the table. Simply ask your in-laws how they would like to be addressed by you—by first names, "Mom and Dad," or what? Once decided, use their names often. Spend time with them and take an interest in their work, hobbies, ideas, and experiences. Knowing them better will make for a much easier relationship.
If you do not identify with any of these problems or others related to in-laws, count yourselves fortunate and in the minority. Most couples struggle to some degree with issues related to their partner's parents. Cherish your unique relationships and circumstances and remember that the healthy foundation you build now will prepare you for the transitions ahead.
Leslie Parrott, Ed.D. and Les Parrott, Ph.D., are co-directors of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University and the authors of Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, Becoming Soul Mates, and When Bad Things Happen to Good Marriages (all Zondervan). Visit Les and Leslie at www.RealRelationships.com.
2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.