In every marriage, it is important for couples to determine what is acceptable and what isn’t during a fight. Often people have different sorts of limits of what they find to be acceptable and the different beliefs about what is acceptable and what isn’t can lead to a lot of anger and hurt if it isn’t discussed.
Examples of Couples Who Didn’t Set the Rules
Newlyweds Ethan and Shawna had difficulty settling disputes. When they disagreed about something, Shawna usually yelled. Ethan was offended by her yelling, so he tended to become angry with her for raising her voice. Soon their arguments turned into personal attacks rather than staying on topic and things just didn’t seem to get resolved.
David and Patrice had been married for ten years. Whenever they got into a disagreement, David walked off. This angered Patrice as she felt like he just couldn’t stay “being wrong” or “facing problems.” However, David thought he was doing the right thing by walking away before he got really angry and said or did things he regretted.
James and Carla often had heated disputes. And when it was over, Carla usually picked up the phone to call someone. James presumed she was calling her mother or her sister to complain about him. However, Carla felt like venting to someone else was helping her calm down. She also said that her mother and sister were good at helping her see things from James’ point of view.
These examples are fairly common in marriages. During disputes, one person’s behavior is misunderstood. How people handle anger and conflict can be very different and unless couples discuss their differences, it can make it difficult to resolve conflict.
Changing How You Fight
Fighting isn’t a bad thing. However, the way you fight can be. If you resort to hurting or offending one another, it can be very damaging to the relationship. Also, if one of you has difficulty being assertive it may mean that only one person’s needs ever get met.
And when couples struggle to successfully resolve conflict, it can mean that disagreements don’t get resolved successfully. Perhaps one person tends to always “win” or maybe problems are ignored as a couple tries to sweep them under the rug.
Most couples don’t ever talk about how they fight. When things are going well, they often don’t want to bring up the subject of conflict, for fear it will create conflict. But if it isn’t discussed, it certainly won’t change. It can be helpful to develop a plan for how you can discuss your behavior when you disagree and what changes you’d like to see.
Identify Your Differences
A great exercise for couples is to create separate lists about acceptable behavior during a disagreement. Create a list about what behavior you find to be acceptable during a fight, what behavior you find to be unacceptable, what behavior you think your partner finds acceptable and what behavior you think your partner finds unacceptable.
Think about all sorts of behavior such as physical behavior. Is it okay to leave when you are angry? Is it acceptable to pace? What about slamming a fist on a table?
Also, include things about tone of voice. Is yelling acceptable? Is there a difference between “raising your voice” and yelling? How about sarcasm during a fight?
What sorts of things are okay to bring up during a fight? What should be off limits? For example, is it unacceptable to you when your spouse brings up a past mistake? What about name calling?
And also discuss what is acceptable or unacceptable about ending a fight. Is it okay for one person to call a time-out? Should you go to bed angry if it isn’t settled or should you stay up until you resolve a problem? Is it okay for one person to leave the house for a while?
When you’re done with your lists, exchange lists. See how accurate your assessment was of what your partner finds acceptable and unacceptable. Discuss areas where you agree and the areas where you disagree about acceptable behavior.
Set Rules about Fighting
Establish some rules about fighting. Work to compromise and negotiate to develop a list of rules that will allow you both to feel comfortable. Create a contract that says what behaviors you will work on addressing and changing.
Then, work on keeping up your end of the bargain. Try to make changes to how you fight and make up and you’ll likely find it is difficult to make these changes at first. Old habits are hard to change, especially when you are emotional. However, don’t give up. It takes practice.
For example, if you agree that you won’t raise your voice when you get into a disagreement, the next time there’s conflict, focus hard on keeping your voice down. If you raise your voice, acknowledge it and address it. Try to stick to what you agreed to work on.