I recently found an archived broadcast of This American Life which introduced a curious body of research, an extended study of marriage, and of the markers indicating which were likely to be successful and which were destined to end early. We’re talking science here, not anecdotal guesswork; couples were taped while engaged in a difficult conversation, temperature and heart rate measured, exchanges analyzed word-by-word. As the broadcast continued, I tried to evaluate the markers in my own marriage, recognizing almost immediately that I am a terminally difficult person, and even the most saintly of spouses ought to leave me out on the curb with a “Free for the taking” sign pinned to my chest. Nonetheless, I resolved to listen as thoughtfully as I could, if only to see where my least helpful attitudes and habits might be
eliminated slightly adjusted.
I expected that couples who carried out these conversations with raised voices and signs of agitation would surely be the most likely to wash up on the rocky shores of divorce, and some of the loudest did. But volume did not indicate injury. As the exchanges bounced back and forth between partners, the analysts scored the pair, giving up to four points to those who, in the midst of a difficult exchange, offered expressions of understanding and support and scores up to minus four when sarcasm, intimidation, insult, or belittling entered the fray.
The take-away? I was relieved to learn that all couples disagree, and often disagree a lot. Successful marriages allow each partner to be heard and valued no matter how frequently the top four areas of disagreement pop up. Couples that go the distance disagree about sex, money, the kids, and how to spend time, even disagree at full volume, yet walk away from an unresolved conversation having done no damage to each other.
It seems pretty clear that couples that don’t talk flounder, and couples that drop into personal attack leave scars that don’t heal.
All of which raises a significant question: When/How do couples learn to disagree? What are the qualities of a fair fight?
I can’t remember when my wife and I discovered that we had learned how to fight fairly. We had probably limped along for three or four years, basically in perfect accord. Maybe. In case it proves helpful to another battling couple, I’ll admit that one of my failings/strengths is that I don’t remember squabbles, tiffs, spats, etc. I heat up quickly, cool down quickly, and let it go, and by let it go, I mean completely forget the what/why/when. My wife is more deliberate, takes things more seriously, and remembers everything. As a result, I frequently have to be reminded of unfortunate choices I might have made in earlier disagreements, reminders which I do not welcome, but have to admit do provide a wider context for the next conversation.
It was with that next conversation in mind that I stumbled on a response that allowed me a vestige of dignity and recognized the acuity with which my wife’s memory works. When I remember to say it, I can respond to the description of behavior that I really do not remember by saying, “You might be right.” It is an admission of my uncertainty and my willingness to suspend disbelief in the moment, and, you know, she might be right.
There have been some significant lessons we’ve learned in the ring over the past thirty-three years. I am now able to see that people fight in different modes and with differing purposes. As I have confessed, I warm up quickly, occasionally have the grace to hear myself and want to apologize and finish whatever has been started; it’s taken me a long time to learn that some people need to take some time, perhaps leave the room, not to continue the conversation until the next day. My pursuit demanding closure, and usually I am embarrassed to say, closure on my terms, has not gone well.
A fight is fair, we think, when each of us is able to acknowledge the emotions under a disagreement, emotions which can be as simple as hating to have disagreement or as complex as treading near the fault lines of shame and loss that accompanied us into adulthood. I’m trying to get better at this tough assignment, which by another name is honesty. I have had to circle back more than occasionally to apologize and to admit that once again, she almost certainly might have been right, or right enough, but some vestige of shame or damaged pride overrode common sense one more time.
I know I have not fought fair when my wife feels I have dismissed her concerns and opinions or attempted to ride rough shod over them. I know that acknowledging her position in the moment plays a significant role in resolving our conflicts, which ought to be about the issue rather than my frustration with having an issue. If I’m honest about many of our disagreements, they flare when my wife asks something of me that I don’t want to do, and usually the “I-don’t-wanna-do-that” is about precaution or attention to detail. I could say I’m a “Big Picture” guy, but it’s more accurate to say that I don’t pay attention to detail and hope that good enough will be good enough. That may not sound all that awful, but my wife does care about detail and feels that my version of good enough might end up really badly. It has taken me a long time to understand that my downplaying her concerns, essentially deflecting her requests of me, is not only dismissive but hurtful.
So, I have that to work on.
Finally, it goes without saying that in a fair fight, disagreement sticks to the issues rather than personality, leaving each partner uninjured, even if failure to reach agreement remains unsure. I’ve been personally attacked in other situations, and found it almost impossible to restore a friendship or professional relationship when things have been said that cannot be taken back. My wife and I both know that personal attack in the midst of a heated discussion does much more damage than holding diametrically opposed points of view. It wouldn’t take much to devastate me, I know, and, in my case, I love my wife completely, even when I’m foaming at the mouth, so personal attacks have not been part of our difficult conversations.
I’ve climbed up on the soapbox in the past to badger my readers into listening more carefully and thoughtfully in virtually any situation. That is great advice, advice I wish I took more often. I know disagreement will crop up in the next thirty-three years of our marriage, but I’m pretty sure I can do a great deal to prevent a fight, fair or foul, by actually listening to what it is that my wife wants me to hear.