Whenever I have fights with my husband, I like to remember exactly how I felt and what I did so that I can share some examples with my marriage classes. I want to show you how you can actually use these principles when you have fights.
A Fight right before Valentine’s Day
So a few days ago, I got really mad at my husband. I was worried about our son Luke’s progress and development and instead of being loving and trying to comfort me, he got really mad at me for worrying and blamed me for “ruining his life” with my constant worrying.
NOTE: I was really upset because of my expectation. My expectation was that if someone is feeling sad or worried, then the other person should try to be super loving and comfort them. I had this expectation because that is what my family does. So I learned this from my Family of Origin as it is called the in marriage research world. So because my husband, Ian, didn’t react according to my expectation, I got really angry and thought that he was doing things WRONG.
At the time of the fight, I fought with him a little bit about how he should be more loving and less mad about me being worried. But as we discussed it (or threw insults back and forth, haha), I could see we weren’t getting anywhere. I was getting more and more upset. So I decided to call a timeout. (Timeouts are a relationship skill where you take a break in the middle of the fight and allow yourself time to cool down instead of escalating the fight further. Timeouts are really helpful because it is extremely hard to solve a problem when one or both persons is upset. When you are upset, your higher brain doesn’t work very well. The higher brain is the one used for rational thinking and problem solving. When you are upset, your lower brain takes over. Your lower brain isn’t very good at solving problems.)
After the Timeout
So I realized that our discussion wasn’t going anywhere productive, so I took a timeout. I decided to go to bed because I was really tired. 10 hours of sleep later, I woke up and tried to decide what to do next. In my mind, I had two options:
- I could be mad at my husband for being mad at me for worrying. I could try to show him that the healthy thing to do would be to be more loving when a person is worried.
- Or I could forgive him for being human. I could forgive him for being a jerk (in my estimation). I knew that his family of origin wasn’t as outwardly loving and kind as mine had been. Maybe he just doesn’t know how to love someone when they are worried.
So, I asked myself: How do I want to show up today? Honestly, I wanted to show up loving but I also wanted to punish him for being what I thought was a jerk yesterday. I also thought that it would be easy to be loving if he apologized but what if he doesn’t?
As I was thinking about these things, I remembered two suggestions from Dr. Richard Carlson’s “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” book. He recommends that you “Be the first to act loving and reach out” (#15 in his book) and “Choose being kind over being right” (#37).
So I could hold on to my position and try to show my husband who is right, or I could choose to be kind and not make small stuff into big stuff.
Talking about it Again after the TimeOut
I wasn’t fully decided on what I was going to do when I started talking to him about it that morning. I tried telling him again about how I felt the night before. I think I said something like “When I’m feeling worried, I just really need some more love, not less love. I am looking for comfort”. My husband didn’t really want to hear about how he should do better (do any of us?). So he responded with something sarcastic about how “If he could just be better then our marriage would be perfect.”
Hmm, I knew at that point that he wasn’t in the mood to receive any sort of correction or suggestions. So I decided to choose to be kind rather than be right. Trying to show him that I was right was just going to make the fight worse again. So I tried to get him talking about how he felt so that I could understand. He said that he felt that I should apologize for the mean things that I said last night. He also told me more about how he felt.
Right then, I had a choice. Should I apologize? Or should I make him apologize first? I decided to apologize. I didn’t even ask for an apology from him. This time, I decided to be kind over being right. I’m not saying you should always choose being kind over being right, but in this situation, it felt good.
And that was it. The argument was over. I apologized and we moved on. Sure, I still think he should be kinder when I am worrying, but based on what I know about him and his family of origin, I think that he is doing the best he can.
Most couples fight about the same basic things repeatedly. Dr. John Gottman calls these “perpetual problems”. These problems usually stem from core beliefs / personality traits that are relatively stable and unwilling to change easily – thus the ongoing nature of the fight.
For example, if one person believes there is plenty of money/resources in the world and the other is scared that they will go bankrupt, these core beliefs can lead to repeated fights about money. The key is to not just fight about the immediate trigger (the event that started the fight – perhaps an unexpected charge on the bank account), but to also talk about the underlying or hidden issues: your beliefs about money, perhaps your lack of trust, etc.
If you can’t get either party to budge on core belief issues, then you need to focus on how you will deal with your different beliefs. How can you make the one person feel safe and the other person not feel too limited with your money? How can you work together? This is where your greatest out of the box thinking, brainstorming, and creativity will be needed. There is no one right way for a marriage to look healthy. You do what works for you!
With my fight, this wasn’t the first time that Ian got mad at me for being worried. If often happens. It’s probably the thing that triggers him the most. We’ve talked about some of the underlying issues that make him react so intensely. And it has helped. But because it is a “perpetual problem” for us, it does keep popping up. However, the fact that we know it will probably happen again doesn’t have to depress you. It can actually give you power. Because we know we will probably fight about this again, we can decide now how we will react next time – because we know there will be a next time.
Since I try to focus on what I can control, I can decide how I will react next time our perpetual problem comes up. When it happens again, I could think:
“Here he goes again! We will never get past this.”
or I could think:
“Ahh yes, he is getting mad because I am worried. That’s okay. He is human. This is really hard for him. He must be having a hard day. He needs love.”
Those two thoughts produce entirely different feelings and results! So choose wisely what you want to think next time.
Family of Origin Influences
The Family of Origin influences a LOT of marital arguments. How you were raised affects a lot of how you see the world and your expectations for how other people should act. When other people don’t act the way you think they should, you get angry. This is where resentment can build up. Talking about Family of Origin differences can help you understand WHY your partner acts the way they do. It can also help you to reframe your thoughts about their behaviors.
I-Statements and Soft Start-up
When I started talking to my husband again about the issue after the timeout, I could have used an I-statement. This is where you try to talk about how you feel instead of throwing out accusations. The basic format goes like this: I feel _____ when you _____ because _____. This can help the other person to not get defensive. But of course it depends on your tone of voice and intention. And they can still get defensive if they want to.
I didn’t remember to use an I-statement in the above fight, but it might have helped. Here is an article with more information on I-statements if you are interested in learning further.
Well, here is an example of how some of these principles can be applied to a real marriage fight. Now, I don’t give this example to say “This is exactly how you should solve a fight.” No, it’s definitely not the only way. And I solve fights a little differently each time. But I give you this example to show one way of how some of the principles can be applied.
Did I solve this perfectly? No, definitely not. But it is an example of how a messy human can begin to try out some of the principles. I hope you enjoyed it!