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Go ahead and fight with your spouse, but do it fairly

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Woman and man standing face to face

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• Focus only on the topic at hand. Dredging up a bunch
of old issues — called “kitchen sinking” by therapists — fuels anger.

• Don’t bring in third parties. Saying, “My mom agrees with me” isn’t going to help win the argument. In the same vein, don’t make comparisons between your mate and someone else.

• Avoid using “you always” and “you never.” Exaggerations hurt feelings and open the door for your spouse to focus on the misstatement and ignore the point you’re trying to make.

• Treat your partner with respect. When you’re speaking, don’t yell, belittle or taunt. When you’re listening, don’t roll your eyes or grimace.

• If you owe your spouse an apology, make it. It shows that you consider the relationship more important than what you’re fighting about.

Updated: March 23, 2012 8:01AM

When Bob Gubrud heard about a survey saying that arguing with your spouse at least once a week makes for stronger, longer marriages, he chuckled as he quipped sarcastically, “That must mean that our marriage is fantastic, because sometimes we have one a day.”

Gubrud and his wife, Rosie, have been married 52 years, so they’re clearly doing something right. According to marriage counselors, their disagreements can help them iron out small differences before they become major issues.

The survey, released this month, found that 44 percent of married couples believe that fighting more than once a week helps keep the lines of communication open. While that survey was done in India, it reinforces similar studies that have been done in the United States, said William Doherty, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Family Social Science.

The studies come with a couple of caveats, he added: For starters, nobody is recommending that you put down the newspaper and pick a fight with your spouse. It’s also important to remember that there’s a difference between “good fighting” and “bad fighting,” and the latter can be as destructive as the former is beneficial.

“What the studies have shown is that it’s not so much whether couples get angry but how they handle it,” he said.

Sandy and Frank Burris have been married 56 years. Happily? Yes. Peacefully? Not always. “We do (argue) all the time,” Sandy said. “There are lots of things we don’t agree on. If we did agree all the time, it would be boring.”

Doherty seconded that sentiment. “Constructive conflict can put a spark in a relationship,” he said.

Doherty said that arguing “helps couples recalibrate by addressing the things that are important to them. I see a lot of couples bury these things under the rug — and that rug ends up getting really lumpy.”

All things being equal, marriage counselor Bernie Slutsky would rather have couples yell at each other than ignore each other.

“At least they’re trying to reach the other person,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a case of ‘You’re not listening to me so I’m going to tell you louder,’ and we have to tone that down. But it’s still better than if they just sit there and stonewall each other. That’s a lot more destructive.”

As for arguing in front of your children, counselors say it depends on the issue and the depth of feelings behind it. You don’t want let children see you waging a war, but having them witness what Doherty calls “low-level skirmishes” is healthier for everyone.

“If they never see you argue, they’re going to get a very unrealistic image of marriage,” he said. “If it’s hostile, contemptuous, full of shouting and name-calling, that’s bad. But if it’s a small irritation that is addressed respectfully and the kids see that 15 minutes later you’ve gotten over it and everything is fine again, that’s helpful.”

Arguing can be beneficial, but only if it’s done right.

“If it’s intentionally hurtful and abusive, it’s not helpful,” Slutsky said. “Don’t attack; argue. And don’t blame. It has to be done in a way that you’re not trying to hurt the other person. You’re just expressing your point of view.”

For starters, it has to be a mutual endeavor, Doherty said. “It’s not uncommon for one person to want to bring up issues and for the other person to not want to, and that’s not a good thing,” he said. “If it’s an issue for one of you, it’s an issue for the marriage.”

How the discussion starts often will determine how things will go. “Research has shown that a soft startup is the best way,” Doherty said. “Say that a woman wants some help with the housework at night. A soft startup would be: ‘I know that you’re tired, but I feel as if I’m being taken advantage of.’ A hard startup would be: ‘Why are you sitting there watching TV while I do all the work?’”

Not dealing with issues when they arise can lead to resentment. “For the person who has an issue, the pressure keeps building up until they can’t take it anymore, and then it’s like holding a lit match to gasoline,” he said.

Scripps Howard News Service

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