Learning to Fight Well

In every marriage there are arguments. They can be good for you, but only if you learn to do it with skill. I’m working on it, but I’m not there yet.

Mood music for this post: “Hysteria” by Def Leppard:

I’ve always steered clear of this topic because nobody likes to talk about arguments with a husband or wife. But there’s a lesson to be learned, so in I go. And since I’m one of those people who are still trying to get it right, this is good therapy for me, too.

Erin and I have a  strong marriage. I’d say it’s getting stronger by the day. But like every married couple, we argue sometimes about all the typical things: Money, how to parent the kids, etc.

Yesterday was one of those days. The trigger for this one, I think, is the stress Erin’s feeling about our tight finances. Money is tight because we decided to take a chance on her quitting her job late last year to focus full-throttle on starting an editing business.

She’s still trying to find the right balance in all this, and it can be a real test of her self confidence. Meanwhile, I’m in charge of the family budget and paying the bills right now (we alternate on that chore every three months and I took it over a couple weeks ago). She has good reason to feel stressed about that one, because I really suck at saving money and processing numbers.

I even had to ask my father for financial assistance a few weeks ago, and that was a killer for me.

In my view, she has nothing to be ashamed of and everything to be proud of. Sure, money is a problem. But there’s a lot of love in this house. We love each other madly, and Sean and Duncan raise the happiness level a hundred-fold. We have a roof over our heads, food on the table and I have a job that I love. And, most importantly, we have God.

As a sponsor in Overeater’s Anonymous and as a longtime journalist, I’ve seen many people who don’t have these things. I also see a lot of people who have it far, far worse when I volunteer in the church food pantry. And, finding out that a childhood friend is on the streets and jobless because he’s a sex offender really puts things in perspective.

Still, life can be no less difficult in one’s own little world. So yesterday we argued.

I used to avoid arguments at all costs. There was a lot of yelling in my house growing up, and my instinct is always to avoid situations where there is yelling. A lot of earlier spats usually started as a result of all the stupid things I was doing as a result of my OCD and addictive behavior.

So, I really sucked at marital spats early on. I don’t want to say things that will be taken the wrong way, so I throw up a wall and sit there in a tight-lipped rage. It’s especially easy to do that when the thing that started the fight is usually something that was my fault.

This would be especially frustrating to Erin, because she would literally be talking to a wall.

I still have a habit of doing this sort of thing. But I’m trying to change that.

I’m trying to open up more about what I’m really feeling. I still try too hard to put it into the perfect words, though. That can cause problems. I’m trying hard to not make an argument about all the things I think I’m doing right and she’s doing wrong because that never ends well. I know she’s working hard on that, too.

There’s one thing we’ve always been pretty good at, though, and that’s making sure we resolve an argument before going to bed.

That’s something we learned in Pre-Cana before we got married: Never go to bed angry with each other.

Have we ever let that happen? Sure. But we’ve followed that Pre-Cana advice most of the time.

We’re also a lot better at talking through things and finding some sort of resolution. Erin’s still a lot better at it than me, but I’d like to think I’m better at it than I used to be.

This much I’ve learned: When spouses don’t communicate and let their frustrations build, it almost never ends well. We’ve seen this happen to several couples in recent years. One or both sides deny any fault on their own part and make no effort to resolve things.

That’s what happened to my parents. Happily, both parents have had more success in their second marriages, both of which are going on 30 years.

As a kid I always thought happy families never fought. The truth is closer to this: Happy families fight frequently, but they do it well and always walk away from an argument stronger than before.

In Ted Kennedy’s memoir, “True Compass,” he recalled a conversation his niece, Caroline, had with Rose, the Kennedy family matriarch. Rose noted that she never fought with her husband, Joseph P. Kennedy.

“Then how did you work out your differences?” Caroline asked her grandmother.

“I would just say ‘yes, dear’ and then go to Paris,” Rose responded.

My Nana and Papa fought all the time. But their fights were more the stuff of family comedy. Papa would make a crack he knew would set Nana off. She’d yell some profanity-laced sentences back at him, and he’d look at me with a wicked grin and wink. The truth is that they loved each other deeply, and though I couldn’t see it at the time, they knew how to fight well. It was a double-edged sword, though, because others in the family have tried to argue the same way and the results have often been a lot less successful.

Anyway, I have a lot to learn about the skills of a good argument. But I’m working on it.

As for yesterday’s argument, we didn’t go to bed angry at each other.

And, as is always the case, fight or no fight, I woke up this morning loving her more than I did the day before, or the day before that.

6 thoughts on “Learning to Fight Well

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