How my husband & I learned to ‘fight fair’ in our marriage

As newlyweds, I hid from marital arguments, and our relationship suffered. So we changed a few things. Two decades years later, we’re still married, still fighting … and really happy.

Tom Merton | Gety Images

When my husband Carey and I were newlyweds, I hated conflict. In fact, I feared it. We had been best friends before we ever dated, and I thought that meant we wouldn’t fight once we were married. Surely, I thought, if we loved each other enough and communicated well, we could avoid conflict.

Naïve, right?

When we did argue, I shrunk back and shut down. My refusal to engage felt like rejection to him, so Carey kept trying to interact. He’d talk louder and get closer to me. I would then physically shut myself off in our bedroom, or refuse to talk to him at all. He’d get mad and resentful, especially if I went to bed without trying to resolve our differences. Suffice it to say, our first few years as a married couple were rough.

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Still, all was not lost. Last year, we celebrated 21 years of marriage. We’ve made it this far because neither one of us was willing to walk away … and because we found a combination of unconditional love, Christian counseling, simple stubbornness, and God’s grace.

One of the main things we learned to do better after those first few years was how to “fight” more productively with one another. We began to see conflict as an opportunity. Arguments will happen when two people are in a long-term relationship. We are all human, after all, and each of us has flaws, quirks, and annoying habits. However, when we learn to “fight fair,” conflict can lead us to greater intimacy with our spouse.

1. Connect within your conflict

If we can learn to shun behaviors such as sarcasm, eye-rolling, and interrupting, we can communicate more effectively. During arguments, it’s important to give your partner space to share their feelings and concerns. Even if you vehemently disagree with your mate’s point of view, there is much to be gained by listening and even repeating back to him what you heard (you’ll be surprised: even when you think you’re repeating him word for word, it’s not always the same thing he said!).

Leslie Vernick is a licensed clinical social worker, relationship coach and author of seven books, including The Emotionally Destructive Marriage. On her blog, Leslie answered a reader who was struggling with communicating in her marriage by advising: “It’s important to be able to express your needs and wants in a non-judgmental or non-accusatory way. For example, you might say, ‘I miss talking with you’ or ‘I want to spend some time together this weekend doing something fun.’ That sounds very different from ‘You never have time for me’ or ‘You’re always putting your friends ahead of me.’ The former phrases engender a more positive, problem-solving response. The latter creates a defensive response that will probably lead to more distancing and withdrawal. Then that feels upsetting to you and you start pursuing and he continues to avoid, leaving you feeling more lonely and unloved.”

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When both spouses feel respected and cherished, a couple can move toward a solution that satisfies both parties. My husband says it this way: “I try to think, ‘Is the type of arguing Dena and I are engaging in producing the desired results?’ In other words, is this really helping, or are we just wearing ourselves out on an emotional treadmill?”

2. Find your middle ground

Another way to fight fair is by compromising on a happy medium.

For example, in the first few years of marriage, Carey wanted to hash things out for as long as it took to come to an agreement—even if our argument lasted for hours! On the other hand, I wanted to talk about our conflict and then think about it separately, only coming back together when we had cooled down and discovered some sort of clarity. After a few years of butting heads over our differences, we found a compromise that worked. We agreed never to go to bed when we are angry, but we also agreed to “table” certain discussions until later, if I became too fatigued or distraught to continue.

3. Control your tongue

If we want our marriages to thrive, we must also learn to control our tongues. One of the biggest problems during arguments is our human tendency to talk (often “filter-free”) first, so that our point will be heard. Deb DeArmond, who co-wrote Don’t Go to Bed Angry: Stay Up and Fight! with her husband Ron, says, “James 3:2 reads: ‘Indeed, we all make many mistakes. For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way.’ Over the years, I’ve become more aware of the need to be intentional with Ron when conflict arises, mostly because the Spirit of the Lord has been persistent to point out missed opportunities, little slips, and major mishaps of the mouth.”

I so appreciate Deb’s perspective. Navigating the ups and downs of marriage can be stressful, and sometimes, we lose patience and say things that are hurtful. If we’re not careful, those actions can become a habit. When one or both partners loosen their tongue(s) and loses self-control, the atmosphere turns tense and even toxic. Then, resentment and un-forgiveness build, and bitterness creeps in.

My husband and I tell our two boys, just because something is hard doesn’t mean it’s not also good.

Controlling our words is easier said than done, but we are not alone. Are you naturally sarcastic? Pray for help to bite your tongue during conflict, and try to find another, healthier outlet for that aspect of your personality. One of the first things that drew me to my husband was his sense of humor. It was corny, but cute; he never poked fun at anyone but himself. I admired it then, and appreciate it even more now.

Maybe you struggle with nagging. If so, the next time you start to remind your spouse about something they’ve forgotten to do, take a deep breath, say a quick prayer, and simply write the reminder down on a piece of paper. Include words like “please” or “I’d appreciate it if …” Later, place the note somewhere your spouse will see it. Add chocolate or another treat, if you’d like. (Hey, don’t knock it if it works!)

4. Change trajectory

Changing negative communication habits is difficult, especially when we’ve practiced some of those behaviors since childhood. The truth is: marriage is also difficult at times. But as Carey and I tell our two boys, just because something is hard doesn’t mean it’s not also good. Everything worthwhile—parenting, work, ministry, friendship, service, health—has an element of difficulty built in.

When we allow it, God will meet us in the middle of the struggle. When we ask for help, He gives it. He also uses hard times to grow our character and teach us lessons we need to learn. Submitting our will is not always fun, but the outcome—renewed peace, perspective, and patience—is always worth it.

Also, the rewards of working for a healthy marriage are tremendous, not only for us but for future generations. Psychologists Howard Markman, PhD, John Gottman, PhD, and others did scientific studies on couples during the 1970s and ’80s and found that “the quality of interaction between husbands and wives was highly predictive of marital distress or divorce.”

The doctors’ research indicated that couples who interacted—and reacted—in negative ways often had troubled marriages. Those behavior patterns also indicated a very high level of future relationship distress or divorce. One important takeaway from the studies: “Negative interaction is considered a dynamic behavior factor that couples can change to improve their odds of staying together.”

If a long-lasting, supportive marriage isn’t an incentive to “fight fair,” I don’t know what is. Because staying together is exactly one of the reasons we got married in the first place.

Dena Dyer
Dena Dyer
Dena's work has appeared in dozens of publications, including Reader's Digest, Woman's World, Family Circle, Redbook, Today's Christian Woman, and more. She's also the author or co-author of eight books; her newest release (written with her husband of 21 years) is the humorous devotional book, Love at First Fight: 52 Story-Based Meditations for Married Couples.

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