Sometimes, I have a couple in my office, telling me how desperate they are to save their marriage — but when I watch them, I am at a loss for why they would want to.
They constantly argue and bicker. One says up, the other says down. One says “blue,” the other claims it is “green.”
I often interrupt and ask, “is this how things are between the two of you?”
Often, they will pause in mid-spar, change their tone and say “yes, this is how it is.”
I can only wonder why they even want to work on things. It just looks so painful.
And so unnecessary.
And utterly ridiculous.
And absolutely avoidable.
OK, not entirely avoidable, but probably 80 to 90% avoidable.
Every couple is going to have disagreements.
But at least make sure they are about something meaningful! Make it worthwhile when you do have the arguments.
Otherwise, you are only eating away at your relationship (and the emotional health of each of you, and the children).
Study after study has shown that conflicted households lead to an array of problems, both physical and emotional. And not just for the ones doing the arguing. Other family members are also affected.
Sometimes, more so, as they have NO control over the situation.
And the conflict eats away at the relationship, eroding all positive feelings over time.
For the most part, arguing and bickering becomes just another habit for many couples.
In fact, many couples have said, “if we don’t argue, there will be no conversation.”
Really? That is the choice? Arguments or silence?
I have watched enough couples to know that is not the case. Just the effect of letting conflict become a) habit and b) the norm.
Habits can be changed. It does take time, effort, and knowledge.
So, let’s get started!
What to do:
1) Marriage researcher, John Gottman, has noted the “Golden Ratio.”
He found that for a relationship to stay positive and move forward, the ratio of positive to negative interactions should be 5 to 1. That means for every negative interaction, there needs to be 5 positive ones.
Examine your relationship, and take action if you think you do not meet that minimum ratio. Remember, the more positive interactions versus negative, the better.
2) Recognize arguments for what they are, worthless interactions (except those 10 to 20% that are about something important).
Arguments, in my definition, are “two people with two opinions, attempting to change the other person’s opinion, but unwilling to consider changing their own.”
In other words, even if it is about something important, we are generally unwilling to consider the other person’s opinion, anyway. That means that even those important issues rarely shift.
We live in denial that someone is going to change their opinion, even when we are unwilling to make a change.
A friend of mine told me that really listening meant you had to listen so intently that you are willing to consider changing your mind. Good advice that few of us follow.
3) Note that arguments are often a symptom of power struggles in the relationship.
They point to yet another place where we are not on a team.
I don’t mean a heated discussion. That can be all about working together.
But when you keep having the same argument over and over, take it as a sign you are working on a You/Me level, not a WE level.
4) Conflict is also a symptom of disconnect.
When one, the other, or both feel disconnected, the pain of that leads to frustration. Frustration leads to a build-up of negativity.
Negativity then leaks out as conflict and bickering — often about unrelated issues!
I hear the story on a regular basis: one feels neglected, ignored, rejected, discounted, etc., by their spouse. It begins to boil within, and then out comes the verbal jabs, the useless arguments, the hurtful words. They are not about what is being said, but about the feeling of disconnection.
Reconnecting often causes the arguing to retreat. Unfortunately, when you are arguing, you likely don’t feel like connecting.
Solution: decide to reach out, anyway. Decide to take a risk and reach across the anger. You may be surprised to find someone feeling equally disconnected, but wanting to connect.
5) And probably the most important one: Seek to understand.
This is the antithesis of an argument. Arguments are held as “Let me tell you the RIGHT way of seeing this.”
But seeking to understand assumes there is not just one way of viewing something. There can be a number of ways and angles.
We all have a certain “paradigm,” a way of seeing the world, that colors our opinion. Therefore, we are bound to see things differently. Not necessarily right/wrong, but differently.
And this is not about agreeing with the other person. It is about understanding where he/she is coming from.
I can more easily understand someone and how they view the world than to necessarily agree with someone.
And often, what we most crave is really to just be understood. Not necessarily having someone agree. But knowing we are understood.
Ready to stop the arguing, start the connecting? CLICK HERE
Lee Baucom, Ph.D. is a best-selling author, therapist, coach and speaker, and has over a quarter of a century of experience helping couples and individuals learn to thrive in their relationships and their lives. He is the creator of the internet marriage program, Save The Marriage.