Sep 172013

kisssmallChances 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.

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 Posted by at 12:03 am

  6 Responses to “ On Marriage, Part VI: Go To Bed Mad. Or, How To Fight”

  1. I know this may come as a surprise to you and you probably won’t even believe me but The Gent and I do not argue. We just have too much in common. We make each other laugh more than anything else. He is 51 and I’m nearly 47, we’ve been around for a while, with and without each other. Most things are just not that important to argue over. Now, do I get mad and irritable at something he may or may not do? Of ocurse. Do I nag him out loud and bring it up verbally just to hear myself complain? No. It’s not that important. Plus, being married to a perfect damned man, well, LOL….. No seriously, we just don’t argue. Granted, we’ve only been together for nearly seven years now but I don’t see us getting all involved in any sort of heated arguments any time soon. Our kids are nearly grown so we’ve been enjoying each other’s company. Yes, we have our differences but really? We have more going for us than against us. We have been through a lot separately and together, most things that couples argue about just aren’t important to us. Plus, keeping our money separate helps. Just sayin’.

  2. I absolutely agree. The whole “don’t go to bed mad” is one of the worst pieces of advice in the world. Because you know what happens when I’m exhausted? I get snappy, incoherent, and completely without a filter. NONE of those are good things when you are already pissed off.

    We’re still learning how to fight well. We’ve gotten much better over the years. Better at bringing things up. Better at talking them out. Better at staying calm and on topic while arguing. Other things we are still working on. But we always know we’re in it for the long haul and I think that’s what gives us the safety to be able to disagree.

  3. Carol, I’ve known a few couples who never fight, and it’s remarkable. I think most of us have to at least occasionally.

    MrsDragon, that mutual feeling of security—that absence of perceived alternatives—is absolutely at the heart of it.

  4. I was talking some co-workers recently about this very subject, and someone brought up the whole “don’t go to bed mad” thing. I told them that I’ve gone to bed mad plenty of times. They all looked at me like I had two heads.

    We don’t fight a lot, but when we do, it might take a day or two to work itself out. So be it. We’ve lasted almost 17 years and still thoroughly enjoy each other’s company. Apparently it’s working for us!

  5. Marriage is tough. Our first year was our worst. I think that to avoid a lot of confrontations, people need to learn how to really communicate with each other. Most of us are afraid to say what we really mean and think, which leads into problems later on (gunnysacking, I believe, is what you called it).

    • Lynda, that’s part of it, but I think another part of it is poorly assessing what some slight or another may mean to you. You think it’s silly to bring something up so you don’t, and then you get in the red on something else with your spouse and here it comes tumbling out.

      I’m a lot better at filtering/distilling some things than I used to be. There can be something that makes me mad now, and I’ll have it turned all the way to nothing over the space of an afternoon instead of bringing it up to Lea.

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