Fight Right

Wondering about how much is too much when it comes to arguing with your spouse? It’s possible you could be asking the wrong question.

By Julie Baumgardner MS, CFLE, President and CEO of First Things First

It’s always interesting to hear what couples say when asked about how much they argue. Some say “never,” believing that arguing would be a sign their marriage wasn’t doing well. Others freely admit they argue a lot and especially enjoy the opportunity to make up (insert: sheepish grin). Still others say they argue about anything and everything and have no idea how to stop.

Believe it or not, a healthy amount of research indicates it isn’t whether or not you argue that really matters. Dr. Gary Oliver, co-author of Mad About Us: Moving from Anger to Intimacy, explains why. “It’s less about how much and more about how well couples argue that impacts the quality of their marriage relationship,” he says. “It also depends on how a couple defines arguing. If you find yourself always trying to win rather than seeking to understand, that should be a warning sign that you are in a potentially dangerous place. I think it is important for couples to remember that healthy conflict is an essential part of growing together as a couple.”

But how can you know the difference between healthy conflict and destructing arguing? Read on to find out.

Warnings Signs of a Destructive Argument

Noted psychologist Dr. John Gottman has identified four potentially destructive communication styles and coping mechanisms couples fall into when arguing. They include:

#1. Harsh Start. Starting the discussion in a severe, sharp, or accusatory manner, rather than bringing issues or problems up gently.

#2. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Engaging in one or more of four hostile forms of communication.

  • Criticism. blaming, faultfinding, nit-picking, using negative labels to attack spouse’s character
  • Defensiveness. denying spouse’s statements, refusing to admit own role in problems, avoiding responsibility
  • Contempt. showing disgust/lack of respect for spouse; name-calling, put-downs, sarcasm, cynicism, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, etc.
  • Stonewalling. refusing to give verbal or nonverbal feedback to spouse; withdrawing, walking away; according to Gottman, 85% of
    “stonewallers” are men

#3. Flooding. This is when you get so overwhelmed during an emotionally charged situation that you enter into either “fight” or “flight” mode. Reflexively, you begin to operate solely out of a self-preservation mindset.

#4. Body Language. “Body language” refers to the physical expression of flooding. It may include increased heart rate and adrenaline, sweating, rising blood pressure, flush face, and tense muscles. At this point, your ability to process information or think before you speak is reduced, making it nearly impossible to engage in healthy discussion or resolve a problem.

So, how much is too much when it comes to arguing? The answer lies in how well you handle yourself. If you are looking out for the best interest of your marriage, recognizing you are on the same team, treating your spouse respectfully, and pursuing mutual understanding, it’s unlikely that arguing is going to hurt your marriage.

On the flip side, if you see arguing as competition between you and your spouse, a way to prove you are right and he/she is wrong, or an opportunity to have the last word, any amount of arguing in this manner can harm your relationship.

The most important questions you can ask yourself are, “Is this a battle worth fighting?” and “A month from now will this be a big deal?” If the answer is “no” to either question, then let it go. If the answer is “yes,” move forward keeping in mind that the ultimate goal is to build up your marriage.

For more information on building a healthy marriage, visit firstthings.org/marriage.

 

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