I’ll never forget the first fight Andrew 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. 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.
I started it. We hadn’t been dating long and didn’t know each other nearly as well as we do now (almost 10 years later). He was visiting my parents and me in Omaha from Colorado Springs and during his visit, we had small misunderstandings and miscommunications that stacked and stacked. Without a clue as to how I should bring them up or handle the shifting faults of our new relationship, I bottled my emotions, he returned home, called me to report his safe arrival, and I burst. After
giving him a piece of my mind presenting my case, Andrew very politely told me that he would call me back because he wanted to write down his thoughts and hold a peaceful discussion. I was dumbfounded. Hang up? but I’m ready for a fight!
My phone rang and I stepped with hesitation into uncharted territory – kind disagreements. 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. This was NOT my idea – it was Andrew’s. While we exchanged perspectives, I followed his lead in jotting my thoughts and 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 seem typical of relationships. We got everything ironed out within that same conversation and exchanged “I love yous” before calling it a night.
We’ve continued to observe at least the spirit of that first tell-tale argument (note-taking doesn’t really enter the picture anymore). We’ve learned that implementing a few rules of engagement can yield a more thorough understanding of each other. At the center of it all, we try to remain charitable and respectful of each other, sensitive to the other’s feelings and the bigger picture of our marriage.
– 1. You’re not out for blood –
Andrew and I are on the same team, which means that we 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.
– 2. Be honest with yourself. –
It’s hardly ever the case that Andrew is the only wrong one between us; I have to humbly accept that I could have caused as much pain or confusion. Fiery emotions tend to cloud my reason preventing me from realizing that maybe I’m partly to blame. Being honest with myself keeps the argument from becoming defensive, since I’m able to see and admit my own faults.
– 3. Go to bed angry. –
Every sentimental list of rules for spousal sparring goes against this bit of advice, but I think there are exceptions. Sure, it’s a nice idea to start fresh and resolved in the morning and sometimes that works just fine. Depending on the subject and whether or not the kids are occupied, Andrew and I 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, it’s easier to base words on reason more than emotions. In the light of day, 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.
– 4. 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.
– 5.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” have been profoundly important to bringing reconciliation to our marriage. Both forgiveness and apology require the humility to let go and move on or to hold myself accountable for my 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. Heaven knows we’ve had our share of disagreements, but I can honestly say that because we focus on respecting the inherent dignity we each possess (through cringing and clenching), none of our arguments have turned ugly.
Your marriage is ten times bigger than selfishness, fights, and faults. “What God has joined, let no man [you or your sweetie!] turn asunder.”
A Bit of an Update: I originally posted this piece to Truth & Charity a few years 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; however, it’s never ever ever 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 just takes one person being calm and gentle to disarm the other’s unnecessary defenses.