Stop arguing with your spouse and get more of what you want at the same time.
Fighting can be broken down into two parts—attacking and defending
Whether you are arguing about money, your spouse having an affair, your spouse’s drinking or using drugs, or who should kill the spider in the bathtub, your argument will have two features. Attacking and defending. Learning to exchange these two features for effective and loving communication will get you more of what you want, and improve your marriage or relationship.
Attacks can be obvious and stupid (high school style attacks) like saying, “You’re stupid.” And attacks can be sophisticated (my spouse is a lawyer kind of attack), like “There are better ways to do things and if you had consulted with me first, this might never have happened (i.e. “Your too dumb, so you should have checked with me first”). Defending involves either giving unwanted reasons for your actions or counterattacking. When your spouse is actually interested in your reasons, and you are not fighting, then giving reasons is not defending.
The goal of fighting is to prove the other person wrong
The goal of both attacks and defenses is to prove the other person wrong. If you want to stop arguing, you will need to deal with that central issue. In a marriage, nothing good will come out of making your spouse be wrong, even if he or she is. When people are already upset by an issue in their marriage, they will often try to show their spouse how they are doing wrong. It is a misguided attempt to make things better because all it does is make the spouse defend, counterattack, or shut down.
The argument cycle
Many of my clients are caught up in this argument cycle when they first get marriage coaching with me. At first their spouse did something that really was wrong and my client tried to point that out. But, it got a very negative reaction from their spouse. So, then there was the original problem plus the additional emotional distance. Then, my clients tried even harder to show their spouse how damage was being done to the relationship. Then the spouse became even more attacking, defensive, or shut down. This cycle can quickly escalate and result in both spouses avoiding each other and especially avoiding talking about the issue which is causing problems.
Ending the argument cycle is possible when we don’t make our spouse’s changing a required first step
Many people think that fights will end when their partner changes his or her ways or when the current issue is resolved. Unfortunately, that only stops fighting until the next issue comes along. The solution to ending fighting is not in solving all the issues. Differences are a part of life and are inevitable. Fights can be stopped completely by either spouse learning how to approach positively and also what to do when their partner defends or attacks. Then, no matter how hard one spouse wants to fight, the responses of the other spouse prevent that from happening. More often they end up with a few tears and hugging each other than going to separate rooms. Once the fighting stops, it is easier to use problem solving skills to deal with the issues. Learning these skills is an essential part of marriage coaching.
The alternative to arguing and avoiding
Loving is sometimes a hard thing to do, particularly if our spouse is behaving badly. And, we have to be careful not to confuse being patient with being loving. When our spouse is doing something damaging, then the loving thing to do is help if we can and get help if we need to. Much the same as if your spouse got physically injured. My clients learn to connect and confront, while remaining loving. Don’t try to prove your partner wrong, as that will cause fighting rather than change. Rejecting the behavior with your own healthy boundaries is important if you are to keep respect, but you must be sure not to reject your spouse in the process. A spouse who feels rejected is a badly wounded spouse–not a cooperative one. As long as your marriage is on solid ground, then you should be able to connect and confront without extra help.
If the argument cycle has already gone on too long
If your relationship has had many battles and you and your husband or wife have become very distant, then you both may have lost respect for each other. At that point, your spouse will see you as the problem and you will see your spouse as the problem. What once was issues will now be personalities. Trying to communicate in these conditions can be like striking a match to find a gas leak. It’s likely to do more harm than good. Built up resentments can explode out and cause more harm. Do this enough times and there will be no relationship left to save. Even if you are trying to be loving, it’s possible to hit a point of “no-return,” where nothing you do seems to be effective in making up and getting back on track. About half of my clients have hit this “point of no return” when they start relationship coaching. At the point of no return, one person starts thinking of separation or divorce.
When your husband or wife says it’s too late
If your spouse has internally decided to pull out of the relationship, he or she will resist dealing with issues or making up. Things will also be more peaceful, because he or she will have lost all interest in arguing. It’s important that you understand the relationship can still be rebuilt, but you won’t be able to do that by directly approaching your spouse about issues. If you do, you will get agreement that there are irreconcilable differences rather than cooperation in making things better. So, if your spouse does not want to make up, don’t argue about it, and don’t freak out. Especially don’t let out all of your pent up frustration and anger on your spouse. And, if you want to save your marriage, never agree that you should divorce. You have no idea how firm of a decision that is in your spouse’s mind. Saying that you also think you should divorce may push him or her into a more certain decision to do just that. Once the words are out of your mouth, it’s too late to put them back and the backpedaling can be really hard. If you’ve seen salmon trying to jump up a waterfall, you will get the idea of how hard it is.
What to do when you have done a lot of damage and your spouse wants to end things
If you are wrong and you know it, and if you have repeatedly been doing damage to your relationship, there will be a real reluctance on your spouse’s part to make up. Apologies and promises are likely to sound empty, no matter how much you intend to change. At this point, it is very important to show your partner how serious you are about change. Join a support group, get into counseling, go to counseling together, or get marriage coaching. Not doing such things would just signal to your spouse to expect more of the same. And, from his or her perspective, that would be a reasonable assumption. People who have tried repeatedly to change on their own without success need help. Admitting that to your partner and getting help can delay your partner’s plan to end the relationship, giving you enough time to build trust before it’s too late.
Learn to see your husband or wife clearly
We have a choice about how we see our spouse. It’s important for us not to see him or her as trying to do something bad to harm our relationship. No one intentionally tries to have a bad marriage. Instead, we can more realistically see our partner as trying to make his or her own life easier, or happier, but in a way that happens to hurt the marriage. Our spouse, just like us, has only learned limited ways to take care of him or herself and sometimes does harm, even though it is not his or her purpose. Despite all the angry words and stupid mistakes, our spouses need love and attention too, just like us. Their ability to cope may be almost fried. Continuing to respond well, on our part, can ease the tension and restore their ability to cope so the marriage can improve.
Grow love in your heart
Seeing your spouse as a fallible human being and not as intentionally trying to make things worse will increase your ability to have compassion rather than anger, and will allow love to continue to grow in your heart– even if sometimes all you get from your spouse is the “angry face.” Loving someone never has been easy, but it brings many rewards. Love gives meaning to our lives and fills up any emptiness we feel.
If your attempts to stop the arguing don’t work, don’t get discouraged.
Some problems are very difficult to overcome. Your spouse or you may have excess baggage that the other doesn’t know how to deal with. There may be a backlog of previous hurts that still haven’t healed. And forgiveness may be needed, but perhaps neither of you know how to do that. If you don’t know how to get back on track from where you are now, don’t try to fight your way to a better relationship. No one can fight their way to a better relationship. Instead, get help while you still can.