Dear Rosie & Sherry,

Six months ago I began dating a really great guy and we have already begun talking about marriage. However, we have one serious issue. At least once a month, we have a huge monster fight over the most minor things. (I am usually the one who loses my temper first.) Though we've talked about ways to fix this problem, it always comes up.

A few nights ago we started talking about planning a wedding. We also spoke about how we would handle our living expenses, since we are both still studying, and what our lifestyle would be like. However, the following night we had another really big fight.

During our fight he said that our fights make him miserable and he does not want to spend the rest of his life being miserable. He said that he only wants to marry me if we resolve our issues.

I'm usually considered a very likable, easygoing person, but when it comes to the two of us, I lose my temper. This leaves me with the feeling that I am a bad person, who may never be able to be in a relationship with anyone. It also leaves me feeling that when whenever we fight, I make major concessions in changing myself (calling less so he can study, becoming less sensitive to his reactions), so I feel that I am losing my identity, and that I give and give, and try and try, but it is not fruitful. Is there hope for me?

And also I am wondering: If he can still envision me making him miserable for his entire life, is there any hope for this courtship?

Looking forward to your response,

Jill

Dear Jill,

It takes more than love for a relationship to succeed. Two people can care for each other a great deal and yet not be well-suited for marriage. In a moment, we'll give you suggestions that can help you evaluate whether you and this man are right for each other. We'll also explain how, should you decide in the affirmative, to address your temper and the way the two of you argue so that your marriage can be a successful and happy one.

Our years of working with daters and couples has given us a bit of insight into the basic qualities that help couples succeed for the long term. To begin with, they should have somewhat similar (not identical) value systems and world views. Their short-term and long-term expectations and goals in life should be compatible, so that they are moving in the same general direction, and any compromises they decide to make will not require dramatic adjustments. These are the basics that will unite them as a couple and give them the common sense of purpose that will form the foundation of a life together.

Another set of key factors in marriage is what we describe by the acronym P.A.I.R.:

P: Each should be Physically attracted to the other, by being pleased with the other's appearance, and comfortable about the idea of being physically intimate together.

A: Each person should Admire certain character traits in the other, be willing to accept their partner as an imperfect human being without expecting change, and feel affection for him or her.

I: They should feel emotionally Intimacy, which is characterized by deep friendship, emotional closeness, and a sense of trust.

R: They should Respect each other.

From your letter, we sense that you have most of the prerequisites. Yet both of you are unsettled by your tendency to lose your temper over small things. The fact that this escalates to major arguments is also unsettling, because it means that you are "pushing each other's buttons" by reacting on some sort of autopilot. We are also concerned about the misgivings you have when you make reasonable compromises, and your concern that when you do so you are losing a part of yourself.

However, it is not true that your arguments indicate that you aren't right for each other. These are acquired ways of reacting and interacting that do not define who you are as an individual, and who you are as a couple, and you can learn to change them for the better. Of course, we wouldn't recommend that you become engaged without addressing the way you deal with disagreement both individually and with each other.

Some people whose inability to get along with others is a sign of a deeper emotional or personality issue. However, since you are generally an easy-going person who gets along with people, and usually has a good relationship with the man you are dating, we believe that your style of losing your temper, instigating arguments, and resenting yourself for making reasonable compromises are some of the ways you have learned to cope with the stress of the emotional closeness. You probably acquired these nonproductive life skills while you grew up and observed other people (possibly your parents and older siblings) mishandle stress and disagreements.

The good news is that it usually isn't difficult for a young woman like you to learn new, more beneficial life skills in this area. A competent cognitive behavioral therapist can help you identify nonproductive skills, understand why and when you use them, develop more productive ways of reacting to life situations, and substitute healthier skills for the ones you want to discard.

After you have made some improvement in therapy, hopefully you will learn better ways of coping and will instigate fewer disagreements. That doesn't mean the two of you won't have arguments in the future, but you will be more in control of yourself, so that your arguments don't escalate. In fact, we recommend that every couple learn conflict resolution skills early in their marriage, when it can become a part of the interactive style they develop as a couple.

Further, as in any successful relationship, you will need to learn how to choose your battles.

To summarize, we recommend that you first determine if you have in fact found the man who is right for you by looking at the criteria we have suggested as guidelines. If you decide ‘yes,' then we strongly recommend that you immediately begin therapy with a competent cognitive behavioral therapist. You should discuss this step with the man you are dating, with the expectation that he will be supportive of your efforts.

Even if you decide that this man is not the right one for you, we hope that you will nevertheless begin therapy. You've seen a side of yourself that you know could use improvement. All aspects of your life will greatly benefit from your learning a better way to cope with stress and handle conflict and compromise.

We hope this has been helpful, and wish you the best of luck.

Rosie & Sherry