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The Same Old Argument

Do you ever feel like you and your partner argue about the same things repeatedly? I remember the first argument of our marriage over cleaning supplies; specifically the cost and the necessity of them. We each were on different sides of the fence; one on the side of necessity of specific products for each job and scheduled cleanings, and the other on the side of doing it when necessary with what products you have. Even though that was well over a decade ago, looking back I can see it was about deeper values than housecleaning styles; one of us valued conscientiousness, control and structure and the other thrift, flexibility and spontaneity. And we continue to have similar arguments about different things with the same underlying value differences: Should the kids have to go to bed at a certain time or just when they are tired? Do we plan our vacations for the year or decide just before? Book childcare for days I may work or just wait until I know I will be working? They all tie back to the same conflict: conscientiousness, control and structure vs. thrift, flexibility and spontaneity. It is unlikely that this will change. In fact, Dr. John Gottman has researched how and what couples fight about and has found that 69 percent of the conflicts couples have at the start of their marriage never go away despite whether the marriage is satisfying or not. This is because on a core level there is a difference in values based on the family we were raised in and our temperament. Does this mean this marriage match is doomed to failure? Absolutely not! Partners can build skills to manage conflict effectively at any point in your relationship. Some tips to successfully navigate conflicts are:

  1. Make “I” statements instead of “you” statements- “I feel hurt when you tease me in front of friends” vs. “You’re mean for teasing me last night.”
  2. Describe what is happening instead of evaluating and judging – “I seem to be doing a lot for the baby today and I am exhausted. Would you please change him for me?” vs. “you never help with the baby”.
  3. Be appreciative even when in conflict – “I appreciate that you are willing to discuss this with me.” Using “please” can also help take the edge off of a conflict.
  4. Notice when you or your significant other appear overwhelmed and take a time out – When we are physiologically over-aroused by conflict our problem solving abilities disappear, making communication difficult. If you notice your heart is racing, you are sweaty or you are having trouble listening ask for a time out with an agreement on a specific time to return to the discussion later. Wait at least 20 minutes. This might sound like “I am feeling really overwhelmed right now and I don’t seem to be doing a good job listening. Can we take a break and discuss this after dinner when I am calm?”

Even though an argument may repeat throughout marriage, it doesn’t have to undermine the satisfaction of the relationship. When conflict arises, communicating respectfully, appreciating the other person’s perspective (even if not agreeing) and owning your own feelings, thoughts and behaviors by voicing them can make the conflict less damaging to the relationship.