his fight followed the same pattern as the others. Chavi and Meir had another blowup about money: Shua’s upcoming bar mitzvah, Aliza’s orthodontia, and whether Esti can go to sleepaway camp this year. It’s over now, though — or is it? Meir has retreated to his study, and he’s staring at the ceiling in front of an open Gemara. Chavi is banging pots and clattering plates in the kitchen, griping to her sister about her husband’s tightfistedness.
She knows she needs to make peace, though, so with a martyred sigh, she marches into Meir’s study. “Look, I’m sorry if you were hurt,” she begins. “I just had a really hard day at work today. And then you started being bossy like you always do. Can we figure this out now?”
How many tactical errors has Chavi committed? Full marks if you caught all four.
Today’s frum women are emotionally aware and well educated in communication skills. We all know the respectful ways to disagree — use “I” messages and not “you” statements, no name-calling, stay on topic.
But somehow, in the heat of the moment, all the relationship columns we’ve ever read fly right out the window, and we end up saying things we’ll later regret.
If arguments in marriage are inevitable, what can a couple do to ensure that they rebound from a fight and strengthen their relationship, instead of letting the fight damage it?
The Art of the Apology
While we’re simmering with anger, many women like to vent to sympathetic listeners, such as mothers or friends. Resist the temptation, caution the experts. Regaling relatives with tales of a spouse’s foibles is a betrayal of the marriage, not to mention a recipe for awkwardness. If Chavi really needed some perspective or tools, the correct address would be a mentor, such as a teacher, rav, or therapist.
Chavi gets partial score for her next move — the immediate apology.
Mrs. Leah Richeimer, marriage educator and author of Marriage Secrets, says self-justification is extremely common. “Often, the more time that elapses between the mistake and when you repair it, the more you convince yourself that you were justified for behaving badly. ‘Well, of course I said that, it’s the tenth time he did xyz.’
“Cut that time in half. If you’re used to letting tensions mount and waiting a day before apologizing, make it half a day,” recommends Mrs. Richeimer. “If it’s too hard, the apology doesn’t have to be verbal. It can be a note or an email, if that makes it easier for someone to express themselves without revisiting the conflagration. Apologizing fast will let out 99 percent of the steam. If you said something hurtful, the issue is secondary to the hurt.”
One reason people often don’t apologize when they should is the concern that an apology can be interpreted as a concession about the issue that sparked the argument. Instead of letting that concern hold you back, says Mrs. Richeimer, be clear that you’re apologizing for the unkind way you communicated; don’t say vague things like “I’m sorry we fought.” Once you’ve cleared the air by expressing remorse for your inappropriate behavior, you and your spouse can focus on dealing with the issue without the static caused by pent-up anger.
While Chavi, in our example above, gets brownie points for apologizing fairly quickly, she managed to bungle her apology in four separate ways.
Chavi’s first blunder is her noncommittal apology. Her lukewarm “I’m sorry if you were hurt” manages a double insult: First, her “if” implies that she isn’t taking the time to understand her husband’s emotions, and second, she’s not taking responsibility for her role in his hurt feelings. Rebbetzin Michal Cohen, LCSW, rebbetzin of Chicago’s Adas Yeshurun, says that while you should never apologize for something you didn’t do, you can apologize for causing pain: “I’m sorry we had this painful disagreement. I don’t want us to have to go through this.”
Chavi’s second mistake, excusing bad behavior, is also a big no-no. Her mention of her bad day would be helpful only if she recognizes that it gives her no excuse to behave hurtfully. For example, she might say, “I had a hard day but I know that’s no reason to have snapped at you. I should have been more careful.”
Additionally, by accusing Meir of being bossy, Chavi is using her apology as a way of dredging up old hurts and using them as weapons against him, in essence rekindling the fight under a guise of peace-making.
Possibly most damaging is Chavi’s timing. She barged into Meir’s study to talk before either had collected their thoughts or prepared themselves to continue the conversation. By not carefully selecting ideal conditions for finishing the conversation, Chavi is dooming herself to reigniting the previous fight.
Opening Old Wounds
Rehashing an argument is a delicate business and shouldn’t be done on the spur of the moment. “There’s no one right way,” acknowledges Rebbetzin Cohen. Instead, she says, couples need to have honest conversations about their needs. A wife might say to her husband, “You know, that argument we had really bothers me. I think we can figure this out. When would be a good time? Over dinner? Should we take a ride, or maybe a walk?”
Whatever time the couple agrees on to revisit the issue, make sure to allow yourself enough time for introspection, says Mrs. Richeimer. She encourages women to journal privately to explore their feelings before tackling the issue. Is your stance based on facts or emotions? What premises underlie your conviction, and could they possibly be wrong?
Next, it’s time for the wife to put herself in her husband’s shoes and consider his perspective with an open mind. She should allow herself to let go of the outcome and make peace with the fact that she may not win the argument. This doesn’t mean, Mrs. Richeimer clarifies, that the wife should always defer to her husband’s opinion. Rather, she should make an effort to be less invested in the result. Paradoxically, that will give her husband more space to be able to consider her arguments. “When there’s a battle of wills, everyone loses,” says Mrs. Richeimer. “He can’t even entertain her point of view, since he feels the need to maintain control at all costs. When she’s less invested in being right, he’ll be more likely to ask, ‘Why do you think that way? What’s your rationale?’ ”
Once Chavi has carefully picked her time and reviewed the matter privately, it’s time to talk. What should the conversation be about? Should she ignore the fact that they fought and go back to discussing party planners and orthodontists, or should she address their argument? In After the Fight, psychologist Daniel B. Wile extols the value of a recovery conversation.
Discussing what happened during a fight might seem counterintuitive, says Dr. Wile (we all feel calmer — why rock the boat?), but it yields several important benefits.
By discussing the argument, the couple can come to a sense of closure, knowing that the fight is behind them. Also, properly practiced, recovery conversations draw the partners together in a bond of enhanced emotional awareness and intimacy. And finally, conducting a postmortem on their fight may yield valuable information that will be helpful in avoiding, or at least ameliorating, future fights.
“You need a bullet-proof plan for how to have conversations without getting into arguments,” agrees Mrs. Richeimer. “There’s discussing issues, and there’s discussing discussions. This takes trial and error, but do try this at home.”
The wife might suggest that next time they postpone conversations that are starting to get heated, while the husband may disagree, and so that makes him feel brushed aside. In response, the wife can suggest an alternative plan — perhaps a five-minute coffee break would help them recharge without the husband feeling slighted? Together, they can work out a plan to avoid the negative patterns their fights follow.
“Establish ground rules,” advises Mrs. Richeimer. “Maybe as soon as one spouse raises his voice, the other gets to say, ‘Let’s discuss this another time.’ Number two might be an agreement not to walk out in middle, and number three could be a decision not to bring up the past.”
Naomi, married 30 years, is a wife who used a recovery conversation as a springboard for growth. “I had a rough shanah rishonah,” she remembers. At first, she didn’t realize she had a tendency to nurse resentments about things her good-natured but sometimes oblivious husband had said. “I’d bring up things from early on, from months before, of which he had no memory. He hadn’t meant to hurt me, but I didn’t see that. Just once, my husband got very defensive and put me in my place. He said, ‘This has to stop, you bear grudges and that’s hard to live with.’ He said it once, but it went straight in, and I realized I had a lot of fixing to do.”
Together with her husband, Naomi decided to give herself a statute of limitations: she couldn’t bring up any insult, real or perceived, once a month had passed. The rule worked wonders, and today, Naomi reports proudly, “It’s been so many years since I’ve had to retract after violating the rule, that my husband doesn’t even remember making it.”
In some cases, couples’ fighting styles are so irreconcilably different that outside help is warranted. Shira, who grew up in a family that yelled often and easily, is married for a decade to Daniel, a soft-spoken immigrant from a very different background. When she saw that her quick resort to raised voices was causing him to shut down, Shira asked her therapist for tools to help her rein in her shouting. Initially, the techniques she learned were useful only after a fight, helping her analyze it calmly with Daniel and plan what to do differently, but with practice and effort, Shira can now use her skills to head off many fights at the pass.
Once a couple has addressed the communication problems that caused the fight, they often still need to revisit the issue and come to an agreement without triggering a rerun of the previous attempt.
“It’s okay to have different opinions,” says Rebbetzin Cohen. “There’s too much need to get the other person to be just like you. It’s not necessary to agree on everything. Life is more exciting when you don’t. It’s much more fun when you try to figure each other out. ‘Gee, I really respect this person and he’s on a totally different page — I wonder why?’ ”
Shira finds that trying to understand the underlying values, rather than simply each spouse’s desired outcomes, is key. “Often, the issue is one of different values, but we don’t realize it. Let’s say it’s about the budget — instead of arguing over whose expenses are unjustified, try to ask, ‘Why do you feel we need to cut the budget by $500? Why is that so important to you? What’s really at stake here?’ Instead of focusing on the nitty gritty, we go back to the value system.” Once she understands the backstory underlying her husband’s stance, she finds it easier to reach a compromise that satisfies both.
If an issue repeatedly causes explosions, Ahuva, married 27 years, says she’s learned from experience that it may be time for outside help. An objective third party, whether a rav or therapist, can help couples learn to communicate more calmly without flying off the handle.
Roadblocks to Recovery
Negative self-talk often holds women back from improving their relationships. This is a common problem for Naomi, who often thinks, “I married the wrong person, he’ll never understand me!” or “I’m so stupid, I can’t believe I said that.” Thoughts like these, says Naomi, encourage useless ruminating and discourage action. To cut the cycle, she finds that awareness is key. When she pays attention to her brooding thoughts, she can consider them logically and reject the ones that weigh her down.
Women are also susceptible to self-blame, says Rebbetzin Cohen. “People think subconsciously, ‘If I did something wrong I’m terrible,’ so they do everything to ensure they’re not wrong. People get very stuck in needing to blame somebody. It’s easier than looking at yourself, and it’s easier to be angry than to be scared.”
As with any marital communication, waiting for your husband to initiate a truce or to intuit what you need is often a bad idea. While some women resent always being the one to extend the olive branch, reaching out to make peace doesn’t necessarily mean admitting you were in the wrong.
Rebbetzin Cohen advises not focusing on right and wrong, but on the way forward: “I really want us to get past this, and I’m not sure how to do that.” Then, if each spouse offers a clear suggestion for improvement, they can make real progress. “A woman might tell her husband, ‘These are the two thing I’d love for you to do for me to help avoid our common fight triggers,’” says Rebbetzin Cohen. “Sometimes it’s shocking. ‘You want that? I had no idea.’” Assuming that men don’t want to talk about their feelings is a mistake, she cautions. While some men may be naturally less fluent in the language of the heart, their emotional needs are real, and their wives should listen with sensitivity and encouragement.
At other times, it’s not the wife waiting for her husband’s apology — it’s she who’s climbed a tall tree and doesn’t know how to get down. Shira remembers a particularly dramatic incident that ended in an abrupt departure from her house. Closing the door behind her, she thought, “Where am I going now? This is really silly!” Eventually, after a long talk with her rav, she was ready to go back. “I asked, ‘What do I do now?’ and he said, ‘Go home!’ ‘How?’ ‘Don’t you have a key?’ he responded. But what do you say to someone after marching out for four hours? I didn’t know how to reenter my house. It was really hard because I’d made it into something big. I had to slink back into my own house and offer an elaborate apology.”
What if a woman attempts an apology, only to be rebuffed? It’s the 14th time she apologized for the same issue — why should he accept it? Mrs. Richeimer says it’s actually fairly common that when women begin to master apologies, their husbands respond with accusations. “The answer to that is, ‘I’m a work in progress,’” says Mrs. Richeimer. “I know I haven’t always controlled my tongue. This year I lost it 40 times, but I hope by next year it’ll be down to 35.”
Dr. Wile describes a related phenomenon he terms “nice-guy backlash.” If your husband’s overtures are repeatedly rebuffed, he’s likely to respond by feeling spurned, taken advantage of, and just a little foolish, which will spark a new round of hostilities. To avoid prolonging the discord, if you don’t feel ready to accept your husband’s gestures, she should say so respectfully rather than stonewalling him. “I need a little more time to be by myself,” will show him you’re still on the same team, while “Who asked you to come in here anyway?” is a rejection.
What about when your husband is the one who rejects attempts to discuss the issue? Quoting educator Rabbi Manis Friedman, Shira shares an idea she found eye-opening. “We have this cultural notion that you need to know your spouse’s deepest secrets. But we don’t — sometimes we need to accept that there are parts we won’t change, fix, or even get into, and we need to be okay with that.”
Realizing that she can’t force a reconciliation that the other party isn’t ready for takes a degree of surrender, but learning to let things slide will help a wife accept bumps more graciously.
The Long Haul
A strong relationship is the best guarantee that couples will successfully rebound from fights.
Ahuva points to the time and effort she and her husband invest in their relationship as the factor that most contributes to their relatively easy reconciliations. “We spend a lot of time together. We go for walks often, four or five times a week, with no other disturbances. We talk a lot about what worries us. It really nips most problems in the bud.”
Shira says her secret glue is the light-hearted atmosphere in her home. “We make jokes, we’re silly, we laugh together, especially when we’re recovering from a fight. I try to get back to being light-hearted as soon as I can. Emotions can really weigh on the heart. The light-heartedness restores balance, a reminder that we’re all okay here.”
Above all else, experience is the best teacher. Rebbetzin Cohen says age and maturity work wonders on couples’ dynamics. “At a certain point, people become more mature about understanding the fight. It’s no longer about who’s right and wrong, but about understanding each other. It’s a long growth process, and it takes time. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world that has a lot of time for anything.”
Shira points out that with time couples also learn which fights are simply not worth having, because no one will ever concede the point. Once a person knows the hot-button issues to avoid, discourse becomes more civil.
There may be one thing — money — that triggers all Chava’s fights. But there’s also one thing that can change her argument pattern and overhaul her entire shalom bayis: communication.
Communication, says Mrs. Richeimer, is not about two people talking; it’s about two people listening. By listening carefully and sympathetically, we can find the way forward toward building stronger marriages on the wreckage of earlier fights.
Post-Fight Cheat Sheet
You’ve had a fight, maybe even a huge one. But don’t despair. Here are some of the most important tips to help you rebound, stronger than ever.
- Give the silent treatment. If you need a little time and space, you can request those, but never use silence as a punishment.
- Beat yourself up. Fights happen; be prepared to move on.
- Say “I didn’t mean it.” You did. You made a mistake; you need to own it and clean up the mess.
- Share details with friends or family.
- Plan ahead. When and how can you reintroduce the issue without causing an explosion?
- Own up to anything you’ve said or done to make matters worse
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 621)