Pick Your Fights Carefully
Just as right timing, and the right choice of words are keys to solid couple communication, so too is your choice of topic. You may wonder, “Isn't a problem a problem if I think it is?” Quite simply, a secret of successful marriages is that each partner overlooks the majority of annoying things the other does — even if she finds the behavior irritating.
In any marriage where both partners have so much on the line, meaning your emotional support, financial stability, sexual identity, and even your standing in the community, you are extremely interdependent and vulnerable to each other. This reality should be acknowledged as a cause for celebration and caution.
It's a celebration because you enjoy the privilege of living your life more fully in a loving, supportive partnership. However, you must exercise caution because any marriage can only handle so much conflict, and any spouse can only receive so much criticism before the person and the marriage wither and die.
The warning to pick your battles wisely underscores the point that any two people can find an endless number of things to disagree on or criticize each other about. Diverging housekeeping styles, spending habits, definitions of staying in touch (for example, not calling when coming home late), insufficient sex or conversation — the list goes on and on as any married person knows. If you attack your partner on all these issues, you will without a doubt destroy your marriage.
Don't sweat the small stuff. In a successful marriage relationship, one partner overlooks the vast majority of the other's irritating behaviors — without comment. In other words, she picks her battles wisely.
Offensive Behaviors on a Scale of One to Ten
An old saying applies here: “Don't sweat the small stuff. And it's all small stuff.” Although everything that causes marital conflict is obviously not “small stuff,” if you put yourself through the exercise of ranking every complaint on a scale of importance from zero to ten, and then drop off your list of things to bring to your partner's attention anything below a nine, you'll get the meaning of this admonition. Examples of potentially irritating behaviors that would land at five or below on most readers' offensive behavior scales include:
He repeats the same jokes or stories to you and others (everybody does it; get over it)
She doesn't clean the kitchen as thoroughly as you do
He wears paint-stained or beat up “comfortable” clothes around the house or to the supermarket
She watches TV shows or reads books you find boring or lowbrow
He burps or blows his nose too loudly when others are in the room
Offensive? Maybe. Deal breakers? Probably not. You may wish to write down your own list of your partner's offensive behaviors and then go ahead and give each a score of zero to ten. If his changing his behavior is truly essential to your well-being — that is, it affects your safety, security, respect, peace of mind, or minimum standards for civil intercourse — then yes, go ahead and raise it for discussion.
Of course, your other option is to simply live with it, knowing that your partner has his own list of your faults, too. From these long lists, ideally, both of you will choose carefully.
Asking for something always works better than demanding it. Even when you have every right to make a demand, why not use the more effective technique in order to get what you want?
Identifying Necessary Discussions
If you find yourself on either end of a constant stream of bickering with your partner, especially if you bicker about the same issue over and over, that is probably an area that requires careful discussion between the two of you. Before you begin that discussion, there are some important questions for each of you to consider.
Is the issue at hand an essential one (it involves safety, security, respect, peace of mind, or a minimum standard of civil intercourse)?
Is it a potentially solvable issue around which you are likely to reach mutual agreement if you put your minds to it?
Is the conflict over a fundamental, unsolvable difference requiring a compromise that would be unlikely to fully satisfy either of you but which, if enacted, would make the marriage workable?
An example of a solvable issue is how soon after dinner to do the dishes. If this is an area of constant bickering, by all means, sit down and settle on an agreement, splitting the duty or exchanging it for another, like laundry or cooking.
An unsolvable but vital issue for discussion might be that he is Jewish, she is Catholic, and both would like to raise the kids in the religion of his or her upbringing. In this case, whatever compromise is arrived at will likely offer only partial satisfaction to both husband and wife. That doesn't mean it cannot be made to work. In both of these cases, discussion is necessary and will likely be productive.
Respond, don't react. Spouses are very good at “pushing each other's buttons.” Then you wonder why your arguments never get anywhere. One key to effective marital communication is to resist going back to the old sore points; instead stop and speak from your heart using an “I” message.
Spotting Emotional Baggage
There's another sort of necessary discussion between couples, which is necessarily more complicated than any of the above. That's when the cause for the persistence of the tension in your relationship is traceable to an old wound in one partner, usually left over from childhood and often unconscious. Your current dispute is then functioning as a cover for the unspoken issue or wound.
This is an especially important question to consider if one of you tends to personalize and put undue significance on the other's behavior when it simply represents an inconsiderate action or different style of doing something. For example, if he “forgets” to get you an anniversary card and you interpret his forgetting to mean he doesn't love you and the marriage is meaningless, when it's highly possible he simply forgot the date.
Emotions are never wrong or bad. It's how you express an emotion or how you react to your partner's stated feeling that causes conflict.
This is a “red flag” to help you identify a potential old wound. It then becomes important to reflect on your own leftover childhood hurts, especially feelings of abandonment. Did you lose a parent to death or divorce? Such an early loss would make you especially vulnerable to feeling unloved or even unworthy of love.
It's important to separate your own trigger points from the petty issues that are sure to come up in a marriage relationship of any duration. This is what's called “owning your own stuff.”