“Virtually all couples, happy and unhappy, are going to argue, particularly in the early stages of marriage. What tends to predict the future of a relationship is not what you argue about, but when you do argue, how you handle your negative emotions.” (Howard Markman)
Does the above statement make sense to you? It makes more sense to us as we continually research marriage compatibility. We used to think that happily married couples had discovered the secret of not arguing with each other —that conflict was what destroyed good marriages.
We now know (and have experienced within our own relationship) that the problem isn’t that we disagree with each other, but how constructively we’re able to work through it so the relationship stays in tact and loving. And that comes about because the couple acts in respectful ways even when disagreeing —honoring the other spouse’s feelings —which is Biblical of course.
We came across an article featured in The Wall Street Journal (November 3, 2004) titled, “The Key to a Lasting Marriage” which talks about incompatibility and handling conflict. It says that “even happy couples aren’t really compatible”—which seems like a surprising statement. But as we share portions of this article, prayerfully consider what God says to you as how you can apply it to your own marriage. The author, Hilary Stout starts out by saying:
A growing body of research suggests there’s no such thing as a compatible couple. This may come as no surprise to all those who have endured years of [heat/air conditioning] thermostat wars, objectionable spending habits and maddening tendencies at the wheel [of a vehicle]. But it flies in the face of Hollywood, Shakespeare, most people’s fantasies, and all those dating Web sites selling scientific screening to find a perfect match.
Years of relationship studies by some leading figures in the field make it increasingly clear that most couples, whether they’re happy or unhappy, have a similar number of irreconcilable differences. What’s more, all couples —happy or not —tend to argue about the same things. Top of the list, whether you are rich or poor, is money. Other common topics include household chores, work obligations, kids and differing priorities.
“Compatibility is misunderstood and overrated,” says Ted Huston, a professor of psychology and human ecology. Mr. Huston and his colleagues have been following 168 couples since they married during the 1980s. This study and others like it make it clear that most disagreements that arise in a marriage — 69% of them, are never resolved, according to work by John Gottman (a relationship researcher at the University of Washington).
The result has been a gradual shift in marriage therapy toward helping spouses manage, accept, and even ‘honor’ their discord, rather than trying to resolve the un-resolvable. One national couples-counseling program suggests spouses schedule a regular weekly date to argue. Others now offer instruction in arguing. Some encourage couples to single out problems that can be dealt with and accept that most (like how tidy the house should be) will never be resolved.
Of course some conflicts do matter deeply —she wants children, he doesn’t, to name a big one; alcoholism and infidelity, to name a couple more. Differing religions and cultural attitudes also are problematic, especially after the couple has children, says Scott Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver.
He and co-director Howard Markman have done extensive studies tracking couples from courtship through years of marriage.
But the bottom line, Markman says, is that “virtually all couples, happy and unhappy, are going to argue. “What tends to predict the future of a relationship is not what you argue about, but when you do argue, how you handle your negative emotions.”
This has led some in the profession to develop rules that can make arguing less destructive:
• Don’t escalate an argument by blurting out generalizations: “You always…” Stay on the specific subject. Don’t drag past events, behavior and lingering grudges into the discussion.
• Try not to interrupt —let your spouse finish making a point before you jump in.
• Take a little time to cool down after a heated argument. But within an hour, Mr. Gottman recommends having a “reconciliatory conversation,” which will result in a more level-headed, productive discussion.”
The article then tells of an experiment conducted at Dr Gottman’s Relationship Laboratory where they videotaped couples arguing and monitored their heart rate.
Research has shown that if your heart rate exceeds 100 beats per minute you usually won’t be able to rationally listen to what your spouse is trying to tell you no matter how hard they try. It is suggested to take a 20-30 minute break before continuing.
When their heart rates rose above 100 the researchers interrupted and said (falsely) that their equipment was malfunctioning.
[In the experiment]…
They asked couples to stop and read a magazine until it was fixed. Once both people’s heart rates had dropped down to normal range, after about a half-hour, the researchers announced the equipment was fixed and the couples started up their disagreement again. The change after the interlude was marked. “It was like it was a different relationship,” Mr. Gottman says. Everyone was “much more rational and creative.”
While airing differences is important, make sure to set aside some time where discussing areas of discord is off-limits, Mr. Stanley and Mr. Markman say. A walk by the river on a beautiful autumn day isn’t the time to bring up problems; it is a time to enjoy each other and remember what attracted you to each other in the first place.
Instead set aside a time to talk about the things that are bothering you. Like many married couples, Jim and Kathryn Lewis have a Saturday “date” built into their weekly schedules. The purpose isn’t to catch a movie or linger over a romantic dinner. Essentially, it is to argue.
On the recommendation of Mr. Stanley, the couple started going out to breakfast every Saturday morning to discuss problems and issues. At first it felt a little awkward. Once they settled into the routine, it proved enormously helpful.
Before, discord could erupt at any moment and tempers would flare. Now, knowing they have a set time to discuss difficult issues is comforting and leaves them the rest of the week to relax, Mr. Lewis says. In fact, they rarely argue during the sessions anymore. They simply work through issues. “Now we really look forward to it,” he says.
Rules of Engagement: The following are some tips for fighting effectively with your spouse:
• Stay focused on the subject of disagreement
• Don’t generalize (as in “You always do ____”)
• Don’t bring up past events and old grudges
• Don’t interrupt … Don’t use insults
• Don’t use inflammatory language, like “This marriage is doomed.”
• Don’t stonewall [or block the argument from allowing both sides to be discussed]
• Try to say “I” (as in “I think”) rather than the more inflammatory “You” (as in “You don’t”)
All of this comes down to being respectful of one another —even in your anger and times of incompatibility. In Ephesians 4:26-27, the Bible says, “In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” The explanation given for these verses in the Life Application Bible reads,
“The Bible doesn’t tell us that we shouldn’t feel angry. It points out that it is important to handle our anger properly. If vented thoughtlessly, anger can hurt others and destroy relationships. If bottled up inside, it can cause us to become bitter and destroy us from within. Paul tells us to deal with our anger immediately in a way that builds relationships rather than destroys them. If we nurse our anger, we will give Satan an opportunity to divide us.”
So the challenge isn’t to eliminate conflict but to find ways to deal with it so we resolve it in ways that honors each other and honors God.
We hope all of this helps. For additional material that you may find helpful on this subject you can look through our web site and look at several articles we have posted there. A few in particular that you might find helpful are “Weekly Connection Times with Your Spouse,” “Covenant Guidelines for Resolving Conflict” (Condensed Version), and then “Resolving Conflict Guidelines with Scriptures,” to name just a few. Look around and see what you can find that can help you become more compatible in your marriage and then importantly, APPLY WHAT YOU LEARN!
Steve and Cindy Wright