I’ll never forget the first fight my husband and I had when we were dating, just a few months into our long-distance relationship. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t still affect us, because it does, even though it was over 7 1/2 years ago. Up until that point, I had had starry-eyed daydreams of him waiting for me at the altar and of us growing old in wedded bliss. I thought I wanted to marry him. It wasn’t until the thick of the argument, however, that I knew I had to.
In our first fight, there was no yelling, accusing, or insulting. While the circumstances surrounding our tension were riddled with misunderstanding and generally not knowing each other as well as we do now, the whole conversation resembled a formal debate more than a boxing match. No joke either – we took turns making points and rebuttals calmly and respectfully. NOTE: This was NOT my idea – it was Andrew’s. My Irish blood tends to boil pretty quickly and it was nearly impossible for me to cool off when I was still hot with anger. After presenting my case [read: giving him a good piece of my mind], Andrew very politely told me that he would call me back because he wanted to write down his thoughts and hold a peaceful discussion. While we exchanged perspectives, each of us taking notes, I caught myself laughing with delight that arguing with him was such an intellectual, positive experience; a far cry from the raised voices and finger-pointing that seemed typical in every other relationship. We had the matter resolved within that same conversation and happily exchanged “I love yous” before hanging up.
Since that tell-tale argument, we’ve continued to observe our Rules of Engagement, and find that they always result in a more thorough understanding of each other. At the center of it all, we remain charitable and respectful of each other, ever sensitive to the other’s feelings.
- You’re not out for blood. You and your spouse are on the same team, which means that you should have the same goal for every disagreement – to come to common ground. My favorite professor at Benedictine said in class, “My wife and I know that arguments aren’t for either spouse to win or lose; rather, they are joint efforts for us to arrive at the truth.” If you look at it that way, a fight can quickly dissolve into a more civil discussion; one in which you regard your spouse as teammate instead of opponent.
- Be honest with yourself. Don’t try to convince yourself that your spouse is the only one who’s wrong; you have to humbly accept that you could have caused as much pain as he/she did. Fiery emotions, especially painful ones, can cloud your reason preventing you from realizing that maybe you’re partly to blame. Being honest with yourself keeps the argument from becoming defensive, since you’re able to see and admit your own faults.
- Go to bed angry. Every sentimental list of rules for spousal sparring goes against this bit of advice, but I can’t agree with such impracticality. Sure, it’s a nice idea to start fresh in the morning and sometimes that works just fine. Depending on the subject, Andrew and I often discuss disagreements immediately, but if we’re too tense to do so charitably, then it’ll wait. Having time apart or a good night’s sleep can really provide the clarity of thought required for a fair fight; and, because the wound isn’t so fresh the next morning, you can base your words on your reason more than your emotions. With added clarity, we better see that when it’s all said and done, we’re in love; and whatever caused the rift between us isn’t important enough to threaten our marriage. Rather than arguing late at night, take care of it the next day, but don’t let it go beyond 24 hours.
Subpoint: I’ve heard people say that “go to bed angry” is in conflict with Ephesians 4:26; but I don’t think that’s the case. “Be angry but do not sin, do not let the sun set on your anger” (Eph. 4:26) St. Paul is not simply stating, “Don’t go to bed angry.” Anger itself is an emotion and an acceptable one (Christ Himself felt angry). As long as you can be master of it and not let it develop into resentment or sin, then you don’t “give the devil an opportunity” to work on you (4:27). It’s through resentment and sinfully acting upon anger that the devil has a foothold; while you maybe discontent, you can still maintain a spirit of charity while feeling angry.
- Don’t add insult to injury. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” I’ve heard of couples bringing up old wounds, seasoned grudges, character flaws, or even name-calling in the heat of a fight. To speak plainly, it’s not nice. Having a disagreement is difficult enough without any of this stuff, so leave it out! (Much easier to do if you follow #3) One husband told me that he and his wife know just the right buttons to push to hurt each other’s feelings and they use them pretty often. Taking personal jabs at each other makes you lose your focus and simultaneously stirs up more pain and issues unnecessarily. Stick to the subject and when you forgive your spouse for an injury, let it go along with past injuries.
- Be quick to apologize and quick to forgive. When it’s time to apologize, be sincere and humble in your sorrow at hurting your spouse. The term, “sorry” is thrown around so often that it’s lost its original meaning – to express sorrow. Likewise, it’s practically anathema in society to accept an apology with “I forgive you,” instead of “It’s ok,” since doing so outwardly acknowledges the person’s wrongdoing and holds him/her accountable. The honest use of the phrases, “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” are profoundly important to bringing reconciliation to our marriage. Both forgiveness and apology require the humility (especially if you are in the right and your beloved is wrong) to let go and move on or to hold yourself accountable for your own mistakes. God Himself is quick to forgive and it’s in this area especially that we need to imitate Him.
There are countless pitfalls that arguing and fighting carry with them and if charity doesn’t rule the day, a couple might find themselves in pain over more than the original issue. Andrew and I have had our share of disagreements, but I can honestly say that because we focus on respecting the inherent dignity we each possess, none of our arguments have turned ugly. We regard our marriage as bigger than any given problem and resolve our issues in peace.
A Bit of an Update: I originally posted this piece to Truth & Charity several months ago and some of the responses to these ideas were that they were unrealistic; that my experience with Andrew is my own but inapplicable to other marriages. To these ideas I say that yes, Andrew’s and my experience is our own and our argument “success rate” is high because we’ve been following our Rules of Engagement since before we made vows to each other; however, mid-to-late marriage isn’t too late to implement sensitivity and tenderness toward your spouse. Depending on how deeply rooted your disagreement habits are, holding your tongue or considering the two of you as teammates rather than opponents can take some practice; but truly, it can take just one person being calm and gentle to disarm the other’s unnecessary defenses.