By Laurie Puhn
Almost every couple has one: that seemingly trivial fight that just keeps cropping up, day after day, month after month, making you feel as if you’re stuck in your very own version of Groundhog Day. Perhaps it’s about your husband’s leaving his cereal bowl by the sink rather than in the dishwasher, or your forgetting — oops! — to tell him that his mother called. The issues that trigger bickering can seem insignificant, but when fights keep on resurfacing, your otherwise happy marriage can become a petri dish of resentment and hurt feelings — the kind that leave you and your beloved sitting in different rooms watching the same TV show.
I know this not only because my husband and I face our own challenges, but because as a family mediator, I counsel couples who want to work out these dumb little fights that eat away at their quality of life. One client, Wendy,* 39, from Long Island, NY, was fried from exactly this kind of bickering. “Why is it always such a battle to get him to spend an hour helping our sixth grader with his math homework?” she asked. Their arguments about homework would invariably segue into the same dead-end battle: “You never help me with the kids.”
“That’s not true,” her husband, Steven, would counter. “I put them to bed a lot of the time.”
“Yeah?” she’d say. “Well, that’s only because I make you!”
Round and round they would go, adding new layers to the argument, each trying to win and prove the point “I’m right!”
Having the same fight over and over is, of course, pointless, but it’s where many couples get stuck. Once you’re deeply engaged in the battle of whose turn it was to take the clothes out of the dryer, it’s hard to step back. That’s where mediation comes in. It requires that a husband and wife each realize that the goal isn’t to beat the adversary into submission. It’s to make the fight go away.
Think about it: Typically, one person’s winning a fight means the other person loses, but in a marriage, the two people involved are on the same team. No matter who “wins,” everyone loses. When a standard bickering bout ends, one of you will have been cornered into saying, “Fine, enough already! You’re right” (though not necessarily believing it), but neither of you will have gained a deeper understanding of the other’s point of view.
Beyond that, the battle’s loser is quite likely to have some residual anger simmering, which will wind up igniting the next fight. And that’s hardly the way any of us want our couple time to unfold.
So winning a war of words in marriage has to mean something entirely different — namely, finding a solution to cool off the hot-button issue and resolving the fight so it simply vanishes. I’m not saying it’s easy to get past that urge to win. But I promise that trading that seething “See, I’m right!” sensation at the end of a spat for the halo of warmth that a happy, respectful marriage has is totally worth it. (Wendy and Steven, who no longer lock horns over their son’s homework, would agree.) So put on your mediator’s hat and follow these three guidelines:
Step 1: Take a Seat
At the start of your next tiff, you’ll probably feel the urge to wag your finger at your husband and remind him that you’ve told him a hundred — or even a thousand — times that what he just did ticks you off. But rather than pressing the point, literally keep your hands at your sides and say something like this: “Honey, can you please sit down with me now, because I want to talk to you about something?” Not only will this give you a few seconds to calm down and think before you start speaking, it will also let your partner know that the issue at hand is serious and needs to be resolved.
Put the plan into action: Margot, 42, of New York City, had for years been stymied about how to resolve her husband’s habit of partially opening the mail when he came home from work and then leaving it on the dining table, intending to deal with it at a later time. Since that later time never seemed to arrive, bills went unpaid, invitations went without RSVPs, and their life was a lot messier around the edges than Margot could tolerate. Usually, when Margot learned that the mail situation had led to, say, a late fee, she’d erupt and blame her husband, loudly enough for the neighbors to hear.
When Margot was learning the three-step mediation strategy, she said, “The first step — sitting down and collecting my thoughts — was the hardest because when I feel angry, I just start mouthing off. I’ve told him many, many times how much his procrastination with the mail bothers me, and yet he does it anyway. And that, in turn, makes me feel totally ignored and unimportant, so it seemed like lashing out at him was my only option.”
Margot moved past these blowups by recognizing that her husband’s behavior was simply an annoying habit, and as such, it could be changed. “My husband is a good person. He’s not the problem; it’s his mail-handling habit that’s the problem, and habits can be broken. By taking the time to sit down and catch my breath, I was able to convince myself of that fact, stay calm, and work at solving the problem.”
Step 2: Uncover the Subtext
Once you’re sitting down, no matter what the conflict is, fight that impulse to blame your husband and spell out in excruciating detail where he has gone wrong. While you’re at it, don’t indulge that desire to say, “How many times do I have to tell you this?” either. Instead, act like a detective. Your goal is to figure out what your partner was thinking. You may think you know, and you may be right — or you could be completely wrong. By not making assumptions, you leave room for uncovering his actual thoughts and feelings. Ask neutral questions like, “What happened?” “Why do you do that?” and “Is there a reason why you weren’t able to take care of it today?”
Speak with a calm, inquisitive tone, as if you have no idea what the answer is. Work hard (and it is hard) to keep the anger, frustration, and impatience out of your voice. In most sparring situations, each partner can speak very convincingly about his or her motives, and the “What on earth was he thinking?!” question winds up going away.
Put the plan into action: Rosie Behr, 53, of Baltimore, used this technique to tackle her ongoing argument with her husband about how he gives her directions when she’s driving. “We have a simple division of labor: When I’m at the wheel, he navigates,” Rosie explains, “and I want to know what the next direction is in advance. That way, I have plenty of time to switch lanes before making a turn. I also want him to give me just one direction at a time, or my brain gets overloaded. So I’ll ask my husband to tell me the next turn, and he’ll say, ‘I’ll tell you when we’re closer.’ To which I say, ‘But I need to know now!’ It seems like a simple enough request, but then he’ll respond, ‘Why don’t you just trust me?’ and I’ll yell, ‘Why don’t you just tell me?’ This argument drives me crazy.”
Though the couple had been fighting about directions for years, it wasn’t until they tried the mediation techniques that they actually understood each other’s behavior. By playing detective, Rosie discovered that when she asked her husband for directions well in advance of a turn, he thought she was questioning his judgment about where to go — and that really bothered him. He viewed the whole direction situation as a trust issue. “I was genuinely shocked when he told me that; I had no idea he felt that way,” admits Rosie. “From my perspective, all I was doing was asking for some information — and he was withholding it.” Once they really understood each other’s viewpoints, they were able to stop getting angry and start resolving their direction dilemma.
A closer look: Sometimes, admittedly, there will be cases in which your spouse’s motivation is exactly what you suspect it to be — and it’s completely infuriating. Consider the case of the couple in which the wife makes dinner and the husband is supposed to clean up the dishes but often doesn’t do so, saying, “Oh, I guess I got caught up watching TV” or “Sorry, I had a really rough day and was too tired.” Tempted as the wife may be to start shouting, “What do I need to do to get some help around here?” thereby escalating the situation to something approaching SmackDown, here’s what needs to happen instead: The husband’s explanation must be acknowledged and then used as leverage to work out a compromise. For instance, the wife could say, “I understand that you were too tired, but I didn’t know that when we finished dinner. I thought the table would get cleared tonight, but now I’m seeing the dirty dishes and am feeling upset. Can you understand that?”
This tactic sets the stage for the next step in the mediation process. And the point gets underscored that if you’re not going to do something you said you would, you must let your spouse know in advance.
Step 3: Offer Solutions
This final step is the one that most couples skip when they argue without mediation techniques, and that’s a key reason why they remain stuck on the bickering merry-go-round for years. Here’s the agenda: You must each come up with a few possible solutions. Try saying something like, “I think I understand your point of view a lot better now. Can we talk about how we can prevent this problem from cropping up again?” Then suggest a specific idea and ask your partner to offer up another suggestion. Getting your partner involved in the solution is a key step; research shows that people are more likely to follow through on a plan if they feel as if they participated in creating it.
Put the plan into action: Whenever Elizabeth, 34, of Dallas, and her mate argued about who would empty the dishwasher, they ended up having one of those pointless “scorecard” battles over who did the task more often. As is often the case with chore-centric fights, both of them would usually end up feeling as if they didn’t get any credit for what they did.
This time, however, Elizabeth was determined to end the argument once and for all with the three-step mediation strategy. During the final step, her husband suggested that they should take turns putting away the dishes, switching off nightly. Elizabeth suggested they swap roles every two days and post a check-off chart on the fridge. “Neither option struck me as a perfect solution,” she said, “but then my husband came up with a nice compromise–we would each be responsible for clearing the table and emptying the dishwasher for a full week, changing roles every Monday. That felt like a much less complicated plan, one we could easily live with. We’ve been following it for three months now and haven’t had a single fight over it, which has made married life a lot sweeter. And the bonus is, we feel that if a new ‘here it comes again’ argument crops up, we now know how to solve it.”
The last word: Recurring quarrels about apparently trivial matters can sometimes mean there are deeper issues swirling that are too big or scary to tackle head-on. The fight about dirty plates left on the table might really reflect, say, a power struggle in the marriage. Regardless of the real issue, the three-step mediation process gives you a technique to handle the conflict and start chipping away at the problem. If you try this technique in good faith and it doesn’t take the quarreling down a notch or two, it’s probably time to seek professional counseling.