Arguing Your Way to a Stronger and Happier Marriage

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Conflict is inevitable in romantic relationships, including ours — we didn’t even agree on how to start writing this article. Allison said we should begin by looking through some booooring research. Adam wanted to make a list of our conflicts and put it out there for readers to judge. Which is a great way to start a fight.

Instead, we chose to compromise and begin with some interesting research from psychologist John Gottman and his Love Lab. To understand what makes for a happy marriage, he videotaped hundreds of couples at various stages of marriage having conversations about their relationships. Then he tracked the couples for years and was able to predict which split up and which stayed together with 90% accuracy.

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It wasn’t arguing in itself that predicted whether couples separated. What mattered was how they handled disagreements when they arose. If you show contempt for your partner or resort to name-calling, it doesn’t bode well for your marriage. Among couples who stuck together, both partners took responsibility for their own contributions to the argument, and they even showed affection while fighting.

Like any self-respecting couple with degrees in psychology and psychiatry, we try to apply some of these findings to our marriage — and we think you can do the same for yours.

Lighten the mood with a little humor.

One day we had a difference of opinion about how to handle a contract. After reading it four times, Adam was ready to sign it and be done, while Allison wanted to go through every line in detail — again. But she thought Adam had lost interest, and even if he agreed to look at the document further, she feared he wouldn’t give it his full attention. Allison decided to have some fun by tinkering with one line.

The contract stated (inexplicably) that documents containing confidential information could not be left behind or discussed in public places, including elevators, restaurants, and restrooms. She decided to play up the absurdity of this by saying she was very concerned that the list of public places didn’t include gondolas.

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The outlandish thought of leaving legal paperwork behind in a gondola got us laughing. That broke the tension before it blew up into something bigger, and we were able to move forward. The joke carried us through the fifth read, and we couldn’t resist including gondolas in the final signed version. Humor can not only temper arguments but also make it more likely that a couple will find mutual understanding.

In a classic experiment, pairs of people had to negotiate the price of a painting. When it came time for the seller to make a final offer, one who said “I’ll throw in my pet frog” was more likely to reach common ground with the buyer. This may sound ridiculous, but it’s true, and it applies to partnerships too: The couples who end up staying together are the ones who are able to make jokes even when they’re arguing. Even if you don’t agree on the main point of the argument, you might be able to reach consensus on some aspects of it.Advertisement – Continue Reading Below

Understand how your spouse communicates.

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When we have a difference of opinion, Adam likes to work everything out immediately. (“Why are you OK with leaving this unresolved?”) Allison likes time to reflect and process. (Please stop talking, please stop talking, please stop talking.)

This type of communication mismatch can lead to pressuring and stonewalling. One person believes he or she must make a point at all costs and goes on the attack, and the other feels overwhelmed and shuts down. This can make it seem as if neither partner cares about the feelings of the other. But it’s actually just a difference in personality.

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A good compromise is for the person who needs space to say, “I’m too upset to talk right now — can we come back to it in a little while?” Adam is happy to wait two minutes; Allison may take a few hours. Still, it helps Adam to hear that she wants to work it out, and that helps her get him to back off. In the interim, both sides may come to realizations they wouldn’t have if they’d rushed to a resolution.

Listen closely.

One definition of marriage is having the same argument over and over without losing your enthusiasm. Did we say definition? We meant frustration. Think about the arguments you have with your partner. Chances are that most of them can be traced back to a few core misunderstandings.

As you fight about the same things again and again, you start to tune out. You think you know what your partner is going to say — and you very well might. But you may miss moments when your partner actually has a new insight. And if you’re always just waiting to make your point, you may not realize when you’re not really hearing him or her.

New studies show that after talking to a good listener, people feel less anxious and more self-aware — and are more likely to see both sides of an argument. To teach managers to be better listeners, social scientists challenge them to pick someone they usually have trouble hearing and set up a meeting just to listen.

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We’ve found that the same thing can work in a marriage. The other night, while Adam was working at his desk, Allison came in with a serious face and said, “I need to talk to you.” Adam gave her his full attention. Allison began, “It really hurts my feelings when you make fun of me for watching YouTube commentaries on professional wrestling.

WWE is an amazing combination of acting and athleticism, and how many men would love to be married to a woman who knows what a Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart Piledriver looks like?” Adam laughed, marveled at the effort it took for her to say this with a straight face, and acknowledged her feelings, promising to accompany her to a Royal Rumble so they could enjoy the activity together.

In conclusion, as powerful as these three tactics can be, they won’t eliminate every disagreement. Case in point: Allison thinks this article needs a conclusion. Adam says it’s not a term paper. We’d love your advice on how to work it out.

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