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Disagreeing without arguing key to long marriage

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This last topic couples learn about in premarital counseling is conflict resolution. You also could call it the art of fighting fair.

Every couple has disagreements and conflicts, and most of them will come up again and again throughout a relationship.

Some of these disagreements will be over little things. He can’t seem to find the laundry basket. She apparently doesn’t know how to put gas in the car.

Or they could be over big things. He can’t stick to an agreed-upon budget. She spends too much time with her mother.


What sets successful relationships apart is the ability of both partners to communicate their differences, listen to the other person’s perspective and, in many cases, “agree to disagree.” Learning how to navigate conflict and fight fairly will increase your chances of a successful long-term relationship.

A research study published in 2011 in the Journal of Family Psychology identified risk factors early in marriage that “distinguish initially satisfied couples who eventually divorce from those who remain married.”

Researchers studied 136 couples reporting high levels of relationship satisfaction in the first four years of marriage. They then compared the couples who went on to divorce by the 10-year follow-up with couples who remained married, using measures of commitment, observed communication, stress and personality.

Divorcing couples displayed more negative communication, emotion and social support as newlyweds compared with couples who did not divorce.

That study supports research done by John Gottman, a well-known marriage therapist, who, after studying marriages for many years, learned to predict which couples eventually will divorce and which will remain married.

Gottman only needs to listen to a couple for five minutes to predict their chances of divorce with 91 percent accuracy. He listens for the way couples argue: whether one partner begins a discussion by being negative or positive, and whether either partner uses criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling (Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse).

There are ways to disagree without starting an argument. Here are some examples of setting the stage for a constructive disagreement:

Instead of saying “You always … ” say “Right now the situation is … ”

Instead of “You never … ” say “The problem that causes … ”

Instead of “You’re wrong,” say “The concern I have about this … ”

Instead of “You need to … ” say “I’d like to see … ” or “I’d like to suggest … ”

Instead of “You said you’d … ” say “I understood that we agreed to … ”

There is a lot of advice about fighting fair. Some people say never go to bed angry. Others say sleep on it.

There is truth in both pieces of advice.

Sometimes it’s better to talk things over immediately rather than letting each other silently seethe. Often, when you don’t talk about issues, you are likely to make things up about what the other person is thinking or feeling. In the

absence of real information, you make things up. If you both think the issue can be resolved in the moment, take the time to talk it out.

Other times, it’s better to take a break, calm down, prepare what you want to say and schedule a time later to calmly discuss the issue. We often say that when we’re angry, we say things we don’t mean, when in reality, we mean what we say. We just say it with anger or disrespect. When we are calm, we are able to think more clearly and convey the same message in a kinder way.

Clinical psychologist and marriage therapist Susan Heitler, a marriage expert for Answers.com and the author of several books on skills for marriage success, suggests couples learn collaborative dialogue.

“Knowing how to communicate with your spouse means being able to convey thoughts, feelings and concerns in a way that the other person can hear them without becoming defensive and being able to hear the other in a way that digests and uses incoming information to both people’s benefit,” Heitler said. “Couples in distress do the opposite.

“They attempt to convey their concerns, but do so in a critical, intrusive, complaining or bossy way that invites defensiveness or other negative reaction. Couples in distress don’t listen well either. Instead they argue away or ignore data coming their way.

“Fortunately, argumentative and other counter-productive habits can be switched out for collaborative communication with a skills upgrade.”

Collaborative dialogue is not about talking past each other, not really listening to each other or debating who is right and who is wrong. It’s about pooling your understandings and aiming to reach a consensus.

“Think of it this way: Two people can each sit at separate tables, each monologuing and ignoring what the other says,” Heitler said. “They can sit across from each other at one table as antagonists, competing for who will win.

“Or they can sit side by side, put the problem on the table, and work together as allies to solve the problem. The latter is the collaborative dialogue format that enables couples to enjoy a harmonious and loving partnership.”

Bea Northcott is a columnist for the Daily Journal, writing about marriages, relationships and family. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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