Squabbling spouses can learn to make up without unnecessary drama
Many marriages are riddled with conflict. Oddly enough, much of the conflict many couples experience is over “nothing.” Listen to what this man has to say: “My wife hasn’t spoken to me for three days. She’s upset because I forgot to buy ketchup.”
People who live together get into patterns of repetitive communication. During a conflict, a husband says A, his wife responds with a fast B, he moves automatically to C, she tosses out D, and so on, until each is so hurt, they’re no longer on speaking terms.
It’s often the communication pattern, rather than the issue itself, that leads to the wounding.
The reconciliation process is similarly routinized through well-entrenched brain circuits. After a fight, each person sulks in his or her corner, licking wounds, ruminating about injustices perpetrated today and from the beginning of the relationship, and waiting a prescribed number of hours, days, or weeks, before a tentative reconnection can be established.
This slow recovery period produces a painful loss of quality time within a relationship. Time that might have been spent in closeness and joy is squandered.
What for? Because someone forgot to pick up ketchup? (Which is a problem, yes, but not one worth sacrificing precious moments of love for.)
The Nature of Squabbles
Sometimes, of course, a couple experiences more serious issues, such as a conflict of opinion (e.g. how to handle a child’s behavior problem), or a deep wounding (e.g. discovering that a spouse spent the wedding money on a stock market gamble). They’ll need conflict resolution skills and the ability to regulate emotions as they go about resolving the truly important and real issues that occur from time to time.
But daily, repetitive squabbles are in a different category; they aren’t about important issues per se. They’re more about slights that convey the message: Your behavior shows insufficient respect or care for me. There are many examples: You kept me waiting, you didn’t offer me a drink when you got one for yourself, you didn’t ask my opinion, you didn’t return my call.
The slight triggers a negative communication ritual: the squabble. The couple acts as if the topic is the forgotten ketchup, when, in fact, it’s “love.” If you loved me, you would’ve remembered the ketchup.
The truth is, that the battle for love doesn’t need to be constantly fought. After standing by each other and building a life together, most married people know deep in their hearts that their spouse — imperfect as he or she is — loves them. This is the love that surfaces in emergency situations — all fights forgotten, all hurts forgiven.
This is the truth between them. They just have to remember it when they’re invited into a ritual fight. (“Could you not leave your dish on the table just for once?”) And if mouths open in automatic retort, then just as the couple started a squabble for no real reason apart from old communication habits, they can resolve the squabble within minutes. They can just make up and move on.
There’s no need to wait for time to pass, as there’s no need to wait for one’s heart to heal; it wasn’t broken after all. There’s no need to deny each other the company of love, because love was never a question — it’s there. Each person can just apologize for “fighting,” or, if so inclined, “for saying things I shouldn’t have said.”
No Ketchup Tonight
After the unpleasant exchange about the forgotten ketchup, normal conversation can occur immediately. “Well, since we don’t have ketchup, do you want to try horseradish on your French fries?” A little bit of humor and good will can go a long way at times like this.
Sometimes, just pretending that the argument never happened will be a good-enough strategy. “By the way, I went to pick up your suit from the cleaner’s today, but it didn’t come in yet.” Downplaying and/or ignoring a round of bickering is a form of admitting that the argument wasn’t necessary, and that all of us are human and make mistakes, and we don’t have to attack each other or defend ourselves all the time.
And, when an occasional real issue arises, scheduling a time and place for conflict resolution will facilitate fight-free communication that can strengthen the relationship rather than undermine it.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 682)
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