Let's start with a question.
Why do we have to argue to get our point across? We probably don't have to argue. However, most of us do from time to time. I think this is because we keep bottling up little frustrations and stuffing them into a finite container. Eventually, the lid pops off and out comes a torrent of repressed anger.
This isn't necessarily all bad. Sometimes arguing can even be good for your marriage. The energy brought into the relationship can be a motivator for change. But, too often, it can become negative under the following scenarios:
- Someone who has a short-fuse brings a lot of anger issues into a marriage.
- The argument moves from discussing an issue to attacking the character of their spouse.
In the first case, therapy for the explosive spouse may provide benefit. It's most unpleasant and unproductive to have to walk on eggshells. Their partner may eventually decide that it is better not to mention what is upsetting them for fear that their partner may be set off yet again. Along with the decline in meaningful verbal exchange, the marriage shuts down.
It is really important for the spouse who is frequently angry to deal with the underlying issues that make them more difficult to deal with. They need to separate them out from the reality of their marriage. Conflict in a marriage need not be so threatening. And they, in turn, must learn to never be threatening.
The second case can range from a comment about a partner being lazy or irresponsible in regard to the issue at hand to totally sweeping condemnations of their personality or character. The latter is particularly destructive. You can review the work of Dr. Gottman who says that he can predict with substantial accuracy which couples will end up divorcing based on their communication styles.
Words can hurt. Condemnation is particularly hurtful. A healthy marriage requires respect and appreciation for what your partner brings to your life as well as their intrinsic value as a human being. So, how do we avoid destroying each other?
The answer has to do with remembering that our goal in discussing our relationship frustrations is to strengthen our marriage while resolving the issues. The issues refer to what is bothering you. The garbage not being taken out can bother you. Bills not being paid on time or dirty dishes being left around the house can also be upsetting.
The focus has to be on listening and sharing with our spouse what is upsetting up and addressing their needs. This may work the first '150' times we mention something. Eventually, though, we start to wonder what is wrong with our partner. "Are you lazy or just stupid?" we hear ourselves think. Or worse yet, say. Not good.
Of course, our partner needs to listen and act. But, what if they can't? Or at least, what if they find it difficult to do so? Then what? If your partner loves and respects you, why do you think that they would have such a difficult time with your obviously reasonable request? Here is where we get triggered and think, "if Joe or June is not listening to what I need, they obviously don't care about me." With this panic in mind, we lash out. "Why, you...!" We think that we are all alone and feel betrayed. Of course, we become very angry. The child in us, who is afraid of abandonment and its survival, rages.
Is this scenario inevitable? Can we stop the slide to destruction or at least not let it go too far?
Simon and Shirley were married for ten years. They had two children and loved each other. However, Simon rarely paid a bill on time. As a result, their credit rating was lousy. When Shirley convinced her husband to consider buying a home, they started looking at what they could afford. Shirley found a house that she fell in love with. They met with the agent who was very happy to make the sale. But the bank manager didn't like their credit history and refused to approve the mortgage.
Shirley was furious at her irresponsible husband. And she let him know it. On the car ride home, she berated his irresponsible and immature attitude to life. At home, the kids learned what a low life their father was. And in bed at night, they slept soundly for the next few weeks.
Shirley wasn't going to end their marriage, but emotionally, Simon was already half way out. Their relationship would limp along and occasionally have its bright spots. But, the joy was no longer there. At least their children gave them something to look forward to. Unfortunately, even the children didn't respect their father that much.
Here is how it could have gone. Let's say that Shirley was beyond frustrated and that the car ride home from the bank was destined to be a mess. However, at home Simon could have said to Shirley. "Let's get to the bottom of this. I love you and have tried to make you happy all of these years. So, why do you think that this problem developed?"
Shirley could have said, "because you are lazy and irresponsible." Or, she might have said, "OK, you tell me, why don't you pay the bills on time?"
Simon might have sat their pensively and responded, "every time I think of paying the bills, I'm reminded how tight our budget is and how I'm really upset with myself for not earning more. I feel like I am letting you down, so I avoid the whole issue until it's forced upon me."
"Yes, but Simon," Shirley would respond, "how can I not be angered when you make the situation worse? I do appreciate your efforts. So, why haven't you told me about this?"
"I don't want you to think that I'm not manly. You shared that you were upset that your father didn't earn enough to take proper care of your mother. I didn't want to be your father," Simon would say.
By gaining a greater sense of mutual understanding, Shirley came to realize that her husband was failing her because he so wanted to make her happy. She realized that although they had work ahead of them repairing their credit rating and ensuring that all future bills were paid on time, she was blessed. Simon loved her and only wanted to make her happy. Yes, he was imperfect. But, secret be told, she might be, too.
Let's realize what sets us off. Why do we do dumb things? And why do we react as strongly as we do? As a couple, we need to think deeply about our motivations and fears. Together, we can be happy.