We were newlyweds when we had a young man over for dinner, a stranger traveling through Israel who happened upon our Shabbos table. I don't recall the context but I do remember him asking, "You haven't had a fight yet have you?" And I remember his astonishment when we acknowledged that indeed we had, probably more than one. His image of happily married life was shattered.
We never saw this young man again, but it is clear that without some education he is doomed to have an unsuccessful marriage. Marriage has conflict. It's the nature of the beast.Here are two very different people, opposite in gender and frequently in many aspects of personality, thrown into constant intimate contact. Of course there will be disagreements. Of course there will be intense discussions. There will be arguments.
The key to a successful marriage, to a vibrant and growing marriage is not to never quarrel.
Disagreements can be a very healthy vehicle to promote expansiveness of vision and personal growth.
Indeed, disagreements can be a very healthy vehicle to promote expansiveness of vision and personal growth. The real secret to a good and lasting marriage is not lack of conflict, but how conflict is resolved.
Here are my personal tips - based on my life experience and from observing friends and neighbors - to successful conflict resolution:
KEEP IN MIND THAT THE OBJECT OF IT ALL IS PEACE
We learn this from many places in the Torah which places peace in the home above many other commandments. As this dictum from Ethics of the Fathers (1:12) states: "Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace."
GO TO BED ANGRY
For all those veterans of numerous bridal showers this is a revolutionary concept. When handing out advice at these pre-wedding events, someone inevitably tells the prospective bride: "Don't go to bed angry." Contrary to popular belief, this is not the best strategy.
If you check your personal experience, you will recognize that everything seems darker at night (not just literally) - petty concerns are exaggerated, fears and anxieties magnified. In this state of being it is easy to get swept up in a downward spiral of argument and recrimination, and to feel pain more intensely. The best policy is to sleep on it.
Frequently if you wait until morning you will find that last night's burning issue has faded in importance. Under the brighter light of day it seems trivial that issue you debated for hours through a vale of tears feeling sleep deprived. You look yourself in the mirror and say, "What was that all about?" And even if the issue still looms large, after a good night's sleep, after time to calm down, in the softer light of the sun, it will be easier to have a rational and productive discussion.
AVOID SELF-DEFEATING BEHAVIOR
When our friends Richard and Audrey were first married, Richard frequently forgot to call home - to check in, to say he'd be late, etc. Audrey was hurt by this insensitivity. She responded by not talking to him. Richard was baffled, "If you're upset because we don't communicate more why are you reacting by not talking to me?"
Richard was baffled, "If you're upset because we don't communicate more why are you reacting by not talking to me?"
Audrey wanted greater closeness with Richard but her response to his perceived lack of concern only pushed him away.
This is a common pattern.
Women are often hurt by their husbands' lack of attention, but instead of enjoying it when their husbands are available, and perhaps discussing other options for the future, they react by stonewalling. The husband is hurt and confused and a destructive cycle begins.
Describe to your husband the kind of contact you expect. Let him describe what he feels he can provide. But whatever you do, for the sake of greater closeness, don't push your spouse further away. You only hurt yourself.
BEING RIGHT IS NOT THE MOST IMPORTANT QUALITY
As Jim and Shelley's wedding date approached, they began to furnish their new home. Shelley chose a beautiful carpet that she was very excited about. It wasn't really Jim's taste and he objected. The situation got ugly and Jim went to speak to a counselor. It turned out that Jim didn't really care about the carpet, but he was afraid that if he gave in here he'd have no authority for the rest of the marriage. He wanted to show he was boss; he cared about being the one who was always right. Unfortunately Jim and Shelley's marriage did not last long. (Shelley too wanted things her way.)
In a strong marriage the connection and caring is more important than who is right. Marital stability and happiness rest on:
- The ability to stop oneself in the middle of an argument and ask, "What are we really disagreeing about?"
- The ability to listen logically to a compelling argument from the "other side."
- The ability to concede defeat without bearing a grudge.
- The ability to see that defeat is not defeat at all, because, if you resolve the debate graciously and pleasantly, it's a victory for both of you.
To facilitate this more productive style of exchange, one tool we can use is to try to determine who cares more about a given issue. Maybe there isn't a clear right or wrong, no morally demanding point, but it's just more significant to one party than the other. You disagree with your partner. You have some strong backing on your side. But you love your partner. You want his/her happiness. And it seems more crucial to them. Give in. People who are always right can be very lonely.
CHOOSE YOUR BATTLES
How many stories do you hear of fights over toothpaste caps and toilet seats? I don't understand it. If you don't like the toilet seat up, put it down. How many seconds does it take? And why is it more appropriate that it should be down and not up? Isn't that just sexist reasoning on the woman's part?
It seems so silly but we have a tendency to elevate the trivial. Sometimes it is symptomatic of a deeper underlying issue. And sometimes it isn't. It's just the accumulation of the daily challenges of life together acted out in all its minute manifestations.
My friend Margie has this obsession with towels. They all need to be hung straight and folded neatly in the bathroom. Her husband never notices and leaves the towels bunched up after use. Now Margie could politely point this out to her husband, but being the absent-minded type, he probably wouldn't remember. She could yell and scream and rant and rave and create an unpleasant scene over these towels. Her husband would notice then but would it be worth the price?
Margie could create an unpleasant scene over the towels. Her husband would pay attention, but would it be worth the price?
Margie is an intelligent woman who is very committed to her marriage. So she made the decision to just straighten the towels up herself. And she's been doing so for the last sixteen years!
There are too many really important issues in life that require serious thought, and important discussion that may provoke argument. Save your energy for the big ones.
WORK ON YOUR EMPATHY
This may seem out of context here but all too often people get into arguments not because of the issue at hand but due to underlying pain.
This is a lesson we learn in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain was unhappy that God rejected his offering. He then picked a fight with Abel. He found a pretext (the Midrash suggests money, women or property, the usual suspects) but the pretext was not the issue - his pain was.
Sam had a bad day at the office. His boss didn't like his new idea for the advertising campaign and didn't mince words in telling him so. His secretary sent important letters to the wrong addresses, and his computer froze. When Sam came home and his wife smilingly announced that dinner would be a little late, Sam lost it. "Why can't you do the smallest task properly?" Needless to say, his wife, Debbie, responded in kind and the evening was ruined.
Had Debbie been able to maintain her cool, she would have seen that her husband was very unhappy. She would have recognized that this behavior was out of character and she would have responded soothingly "You seem to be in a lot of pain, how can I help you?"
Had Debbie been able to maintain her cool, she would have seen that her husband was very unhappy, and she would have would have responded soothingly.
Yes, this does take a lot of self-awareness and self-control. But just imagine if your boss were yelling at you. Would you maintain your self-control? What if you were stopped by a police officer, would you bite your tongue and speak politely? Isn't your spouse more precious? Isn't your marriage more essential?
There is a famous story of the righteous Rav Aryeh Levin. When his wife was ill they went to the doctor and he said: "My wife's leg is hurting us." Such was their experience of unity. Such was their shared pain.
So you have a choice:
- If you fight in an acrimonious way, you won't just hurt you partner, you'll cause yourself tremendous pain as well. You'll damage your marriage. Or,
- If you work on amiable resolution of conflict, your marital bond will be strengthened and you will have a deepened sense of intimacy and connection. Your goals will become more unified.
Which kind of marriage do you want?