Chances are excellent that the most intense fight you’ll ever have will be with your spouse. S/he knows just where to hit you, for one thing. For another, the consequences of a major mistake are potentially graver than with nearly any other relationship you could have. When you fight with the person you’re married to, it’s high-stakes by definition.
Or, maybe it isn’t. Read on.
Lea and I aren’t perfect arguers even more than 16 years in, but we’re far better at it than we were right after we married. Neither of us had ever had a roommate of any kind, and guess what? She’s already home. I wouldn’t wish our first six months on anyone, but I kind of wonder if they weren’t inevitable, given who we are.
So call them a rite of passage.
The first rule of fighting is do it. Two intelligent, well-adjusted people who have signed up for 60 or 70 years together are going to disagree from time to time, and it’s ludicrous to pretend otherwise. Now presumably those disagreements are better sorted without getting at each others’ throats. But even the most careful life partners are going to get all the way to angry occasionally, and when you do, embrace the chance to grow.
Ah, but there are rules of engagement.
I think the most important one we had to learn is don’t gunnysack. What’s gunnysacking? Very simply: “and while I’m pissed off, here are seven more things you’ve done that I’m going to give you hell for right now!” You can’t do that. Your disagreement is about what it’s about. It’s neither fair nor productive to unload on him/her about some crap you’ve been carrying around. In the first place, you shouldn’t have been carrying it around. Those are discussions you should have had at the time. In the second, you’re severely diminishing your chances for resolution on the current issue.
Another important one is choose your reaction. Yeah, I know that sounds all mushy and Oprahfied, but I have come to appreciate that there is a lot to it. There are going to be things that are important to you that are not important, or not as important, to him/her. You will learn these things early on, and some of them may be essential constants. S/he’s not going to change his/her prioritization of it. It’s not a character flaw. It’s not a defect. It’s not that you’re better.
It’s a difference.
Now given that you know how s/he will treat it, who does your anger fall on? If it matters to you much more that the dishwasher be kept current—no dirty dishes in the sink, no clean dishes sitting in the dishwasher—then why not just own it yourself? Handle it, buddy. Handle it today. Handle it forever. Do you want to win some nasty little point time after time, or do you want to live in a happy home?
Now one of the most sugarlicious, obnoxious chestnuts anyone ever parrots about marriage is “don’t go to bed mad.” The humorous and cynical reply to it is “don’t go to bed mad. Stay up and fight.”
I reject them both.
It is perfectly acceptable to go to bed mad, when you’re doing so in the proper context. If you’re disagreeing about something too complex to wrap up in the time allotted, then you slap a To Be Continued on it. Because guess what? You each know the other isn’t going anywhere. You each know the other is perceiving no alternatives.
You each know you’ll work through this, because there is no Plan B. “I think we’re too tired to treat this properly. Let’s get a good night’s sleep and pick up tomorrow. Good night. I love you.”
Practice. You can say that and mean it. S/he’s the one, remember?
The last thing I’ll recommend leans a little more toward the clichéd, but it’s important. Don’t say something you’ll regret. Remember, your intimacy makes him/her a formidable opponent. Dude, this is not the time to spring that her best friend drunkenly came onto you ten years ago. This is not the time to dramatically blurt “I want a divorce!” Ever encounter the toothpaste example, in Sunday school, or Scouts, or anywhere else? It’s easy to squirt it out. You can’t put it back in. S/he will never forget what you said. So make sure you don’t say anything you wouldn’t mind him/her not forgetting.
Ladies and gentlemen, you have to get things out in the open. If there are things that are important to you—things that will steadily build resentment if they’re not addressed—then talk about them. Don’t run in the red. Respect that being truly intimate with someone uniquely qualifies you to be a particularly formidable enemy.
Respect that your lifelong love for that someone dictates considered restraint.