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HOW TO ARGUE SO YOUR SPOUSE WILL LISTEN6 Principles for Turning Arguments Into Conversations
By Sharon Morris May
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Sharon Morris May
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSO YOU ARGUE
The Power of a Couple's Arguments
We had argued all week. We both had tried hard to get across how we felt about this particular issue. I felt criticized. He felt blamed. We both defended ourselves. Too focused on our own points of view, neither of us was able to understand the other's perspective. I was sure I was right, and he was just as certain he was. We were stuck on reviewing each other's faults and unable to listen to what the other was really trying to say. We walked away and didn't talk for hours. We were left feeling that the other didn't care.
It was early in our relationship, and as we sat out on the front lawn, exhausted in our failed attempt to rehash the argument and try to find some resolution, I noticed how handsome Mike looked. My angry heart softened as I longed to curl up under his arm. Suddenly the issue didn't seem worth the battle, and options for working it out seemed possible. Sensing my tenderness, Mike's crusty heart cracked and he tenderly reached out for me and pulled me close.
"You know, Sharon," he whispered in his deep voice that still has a way of melting my heart, no matter how upset I am with him, "we are not each other's enemy. I know we don't agree on some things, but I really do love you and care for you. We have got to find a way to get our points across without hurting each other so much."
His words raised a lump in my throat. He was right.
We were arguing in a destructive way that was beginning to destroy the bond that connected us. We were slowly breaking the cord that tied our hearts together. Like all couples, Mike and I longed to be heard, understood, and valued by each other. But the way we argued greatly impacted our understanding and emotional connection. We had to learn how to argue so the other would listen-and how to listen so the other would feel understood.
It is not too difficult to get caught in the heat of an argument. When couples argue, their hurts feel huge and each feels justified in arguing the way he or she does. A wife feels alone when her husband offers a solution instead of listening to how difficult her day was. When she walks away saying, "Forget it, you are only concerned about your own life," he feels helpless in ever being able to please her.
In an attempt to be heard, couples criticize, blame, and defend themselves. They get stuck in the spin cycle of their arguments, going round and round, resolving nothing. When they try to go back and work it out, they can't because when they do, they get stuck arguing about the argument. Attempting to clarify who said what only triggers a bigger argument. They are left feeling hurt and that the other does not understand their perspective.
Couples learn quickly to tag certain issues as "hot topics" to stay away from in an effort to avoid an argument. A wife hides the credit card bill to delay the inevitable explosion and perceived scolding, or a husband downplays the attractiveness of the new administrative assistant at the office to avoid triggering his wife's angry reaction. Couples then come to a place where they fear they are so far apart on some issues that there would be no way of coming together. Hurts accumulate. In the midst of the hurt and disconnection, couples wonder if they were meant to be together. Many question, "If we were meant to be together, why do we argue so much?" and "Why does getting along take so much work?"
Yet, most couples truly love each other, enjoy being together, and just want to know how to share life together in the most supportive and peaceful way possible.
As a marriage counselor, researcher, and wife, I have come to learn that at the heart of every argument is the longing to be heard, understood, and loved. But couples get caught in the spin cycle of their arguments. The way they argue, staying in their fight cycles, keeps them stuck and prevents them from hearing and understanding each other. Most couples are unaware of how they argue, what they bring to an argument, why they argue, and what keeps their arguments hot and spinning. Most are only aware of what they argue about and how hurt and hopeless they feel when they can't get their spouse to listen and change. When a couple is able to make sense of their arguments, their marriage is transformed.
I write this book because the heart cry of every husband and wife is to know how to argue so his or her spouse will listen, understand, and respond in a considerate and caring manner.
THE WAY YOU ARGUE
All couples argue. Arguing in and of itself is not dangerous to a marriage. What is dangerous is how a couple argues. The way a couple argues has the potential to wound and unravel the cord that ties their hearts together.
The words of Paul when he wrote to the church in Galatia come to mind as relevant for all couples today: "The whole law is made complete in this one command: 'Love your neighbor as you love yourself.' If you go on hurting each other and tearing each other apart, be careful, or you will completely destroy each other" (Gal. 5:14-15 NCV).
Although husbands and wives fall in love and marry in hopes of growing old together, sharing life with another human being not only brings a deep comfort but also can be complicated and difficult. Marriage is a journey of two people intertwining in order to share a meaningful life together. Our divorce rate of 50 percent for first marriages 67 percent for second attempts, and 74 percent for the third strike reflects how hard this journey is. It often requires more than love and a strong attraction. To make marriage work, a couple will need to know how to argue. How you and your spouse argue and how you turn toward each other will have a profound impact on all aspects of your marriage and life.
An argument not only can ruin an evening or weekend, but when it goes unresolved, it leaves you in a continuous state of stress that impacts every area of your life. How you argue not only impacts your marital happiness and satisfaction but also determines whether or not you will have a good night's sleep; it will influence your mood when you wake up, your frame of mind at work, your attitude with your kids, your energy level at the end of each day, the dreams you and your spouse share for the future, and your overall outlook on life. Continued conflict in the marriage can devastate your whole life.
Most couples say, "We argue because we are different. We are just too different to live under the same roof. What we thought were two puzzle pieces fitting together are now two mismatched puzzle pieces being forced to fit together."
The fact that you and your spouse are different and argue when those differences arise is not detrimental to your marriage. Your differences aren't as important as is your way of dealing with them. Research shows that most problematic issues within your marriage won't get solved anyway. Almost 70 percent of what you disagree about today will probably be what you and your spouse will disagree about four years from now. That is because your differences are in the areas of personality and lifestyle preferences. What disintegrates a couple's marriage and drains every bit of happiness out of the relationship is the way a couple tries to get each other to understand their perspective and differences.
Making not arguing your goal does not work either. Research shows that husbands and wives who do not argue when dating or during the early years of their marriages will end up in divorce. Not arguing is just as destructive as arguing.
THE IMPORTANCE OF EMOTIONAL CONNECTION
Psychology and neuroscience confirm what the Bible has been saying throughout the ages: relationships are of vital importance to our well-being. Research shows that the key to health and happiness in our relationships, whether it be with God, our children, friends, or spouse, is our ability to stay emotionally connected despite our differences, disappointments, frustrations, and the arguments that follow. While arguing is not dangerous to your marriage, staying emotionally disconnected is.
The key to arguing successfully is to remain emotionally connected during and after your arguments. Whether you argue or avoid getting into arguments, or agree on such areas as finances, sex, and division of chores, is not as important as whether or not the cycle you get stuck in when arguing leaves you emotionally connected.
Couples marry in hopes of having an emotionally connected relationship. All couples fight for this connection. Husbands and wives so long and thirst for this kind of relationship that they will do anything for one-bitterly argue and fight and even divorce in hopes of finding one with someone new.
When you are emotionally connected to your spouse, your marriage relationship becomes a safe haven to which you can turn for care, courage, and comfort. Research has shown that when a couple perceives their marriage to be a safe haven, they flourish in life. They are better able to manage the difficult times, are less depressed, do better at work, heal faster from wounds and surgeries, live longer, and live healthier. And so do children from homes that are safe havens. When your marriage is going well, your children do better at school, they recover from stressful situations, they are able to manage their emotions, their wounds heal faster, they are less aggressive with their peers, they have fewer problems adjusting, and they are less likely to divorce once married.
You probably had an idea of this from the seasons when you and your spouse were emotionally connected and doing well. Life was manageable when you knew you could turn to each other to be supported and encouraged when work was stressful. Kids seemed more manageable, or, at least, you were able to deal with the chaos of the house a whole lot better when you were emotionally connected.
When you understand the hurts, emotions, and "dragons" (a term I'll explain later) that fuel your arguments, you are able to recognize the cycles you get stuck in when arguing. You can then prevent your arguments from going sideways, get unstuck from the spin cycle of your arguments, and turn toward each other. You are able to stop criticizing, blaming, or defending yourselves and realize that you both are actually on the same team. You'll learn to say, "Let me start over. I feel very frustrated and think everything I just said sounded very critical." Or you are able to open the door you just slammed shut and go back to your spouse and say, "I love you and care for you and, even though we disagree right now, I don't want to hurt you. Let's try to understand each other instead of blaming each other and defending ourselves."
When you and your spouse are emotionally connected, the bond that ties the two of you together will be secure. Your relationship will become a source of strength and comfort and, as a team, you'll be able to weather any storm of life.
Knowing how to argue in a way that keeps you and your spouse emotionally connected is vitally important to a lasting and satisfying marriage. The purpose of this book is to help you and your spouse on your journey toward arguing so you will be able to listen and understand each other's perspective and respond in ways that keep you emotionally connected, no matter how different you are or how much you might disagree on an issue.
IF WE LOVE EACH OTHER, WHY DO WE ARGUE?
You and your spouse are different. Even if you found your way to each other on any match-you-up Web-based dating service, you have discovered that you are different and don't always agree on everything. These differences often become big and trigger emotionally charged arguments.
No one taught you and your spouse how to argue constructively. Sure, there were the debate classes in high school and the speaker-listener techniques you learned at your last marriage conference. But there was no section in your premarital class on how to argue with your spouse so he or she would listen and understand you. Nor were there any questions or practice sessions on the dating service to prepare you to understand what would bug your spouse, trigger his alarms, raise her dragons, and fuel an argument. Like most couples, nothing prepared you for how your spouse would argue and how you would react to what is said in the midst of the argument. These are things you've discovered the hard way during the years of marriage.
There are not many places a couple can go to discover how to argue in more effective ways. Couples don't readily sit around the table in their Sunday school classes sharing how they got caught in their fight cycles just the night before. It is a difficult journey, learning how to argue so your spouse will listen. Many couples navigate it alone, when they don't need to.
SHOULD MARRIAGE BE THIS HARD?
Some myths we need to get over are "Getting along should not take this much work," "Being married should not be this difficult," and "If we disagree this much, then maybe we aren't meant for each other."
Every couple argues. Why? Because we are all individual human beings with our own thoughts, fears, hurts, desires, and ideas of how things should be. We all share our feelings and react to being hurt and disappointed in different ways. Arguing is inevitable where there are two people with two different views.
At one point or another, you and your spouse will try to get your views across to each other. Whether it is what time you think the kids should go to bed, how quickly the trash should be taken out, or whether her mother can stay for one or four weeks after the baby is born, if you and your spouse have different opinions and each feels strongly about them, an argument could start.
As my wise mother, Kathleen, who has been happily married to my father, Archibald Hart, for over fifty years said, "Marriage is hard work!"
Getting along with imperfect human beings is hard work for everyone. If you think about it, we are imperfect human beings attempting to live with another imperfect human being, each bringing into the marriage relationship different strengths, imperfections, selfishness, needs, longings, dreams, and fears. Blending yours with your spouse's is not an easy task. Just as staying in shape is hard work (especially after forty years of age), so is a marriage. When we realize the time, effort, self-control, and commitment it takes to stay in shape, why would we put any less effort into what is most important in our lives: our valued relationship? The reward of putting your energy into fostering a safe haven in which you are seen, heard, understood, and valued is well worth it.
There is a constructive, considerate way to argue and then there is a destructive, destroying way to argue. Learning to break the habit of one and to grow and foster the other is the journey-the journey that awaits you.
To grow your marriage, you will need to take notice of your moment-by-moment interactions with each other. You will need the courage to invest time and energy into your own personal growth as well as change how you talk, relate, and react to each other. Despite all the arguing and hurts between you and your spouse, you will each need to risk forgiving and reconnecting. You will need to deal with your resentment and anger and choose to be considerate, kind, and respectful toward each other again.
Hope for repairing a marriage wounded by years of arguing and accumulated hurt is available to couples who are willing to be intentional and go the extra mile for what is best for their marriage. Nurturing your marriage is a daily, continuous challenge, but the result is a continuous blessing.
HOW TO BEST USE THIS BOOK
To get the most out of this book, read the chapter then complete the questions that follow. Take what you find to be relevant to your life and put it in practice. To make what you learn real and second nature, you will need to lay down new neural pathways. That means when the same old situation arises, you will need to choose a new response or reaction. Old, automatic reactions are stubborn and hard to change because they have become such big parts of your daily way of communicating with your spouse. It won't be easy to change your scolding tone of voice or your automatic reflex to criticize, or learn to just listen empathetically, or risk coming out from the safety of hiding to share your feelings. Neither will it be easy to take a second look at a situation from your spouse's perspective. To have lasting change, you will need to practice and practice the principles until they become the new way of being between you and your spouse.
Excerpted from HOW TO ARGUE SO YOUR SPOUSE WILL LISTEN by Sharon Morris May Copyright © 2007 by Sharon Morris May. Excerpted by permission.
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