Fighting the Good Fight

whatwomenwant_header_1by Sheila Wray Gregoire

As a natural debater, I’ve always enjoyed a good fight. When my husband and I disagree, we bring out every intellectual argument in our arsenal to show why the other person is irretrievably, irreconcilably, and certifiably off his or her rocker. Early in our marriage this usually lasted for several days. Now, at times, I can argue vehemently for a few minutes, and then shrug my shoulders, and admit, “I guess you’re right.”

It took me years to learn to say those words. During that time I have also learned that trying to resolve an issue at 1 a.m. is exceedingly stupid; it’s better to sleep on it, because chances are tomorrow you’ll forget what you were fighting about anyway. But most importantly I have learned that even if I am right, listening to my husband’s feelings is more important than winning the argument.

In other words, I have learned how to have good fights.

Before our wedding we didn’t fight. He agreed with everything I said, and I agreed with everything he said, because we thought exactly the same way. Unfortunately, on the honeymoon I realized that he had some independent thoughts, and this proved very threatening. I had to whip him into shape, and he had to whip me into shape, and we both ended up with whiplash.

Why does anger hurt us so much? I think it’s because we misunderstand it. We think anger is just like flatulence. This uncomfortable feeling bubbles up inside us, growing more and more urgent, until it just has to be released. Problem solved, right?
Wrong. Unlike farting, anger doesn’t just waft away in the air after you’ve expressed it. It’s more like a grenade going off, maiming everybody in its path, including you. When you explode in anger, you actually make things worse. You usually say things you don’t mean, but once those things are out of your mouth, you can’t take them back.

I think we feel anger so strongly because anger is a master con artist. When we’re angry, it’s usually a sign that there’s something else going on below the surface, something that we’d rather not talk about. And we don‘t like that vulnerable feeling, so anger helps us deflect attention from our fears.

Do you often have the same fight, over and over again, with nothing really getting resolved? Maybe that’s because in your anger you’re ignoring the real issues. Picture this couple: he arrives home late and she immediately berates him for being an insensitive clod who doesn’t care about the family. And he’s an absent father to boot. He responds in anger by complaining about how he only works so she can have a decent place to live, and if she really wanted him home, maybe she’d make the house a little nicer to come home to. (By the way, never say to your wife, “Look at this place! What did you do all day?” Just trust me on that one).

Words are flying, but nothing is really being communicated, because neither party is willing to open up. And when we don’t deal with what’s actually going on, we never fix anything.

On the other hand, if he could be honest, maybe he’d reveal something like this: “I just worry that I’m not what you expected when we got married. I could get laid off, and I don’t know how to support us. And maybe I’m failing at home, too. What if I really am a bad father?”

And maybe she would admit: “I feel lonely. I love the kids, but sometimes they’re not enough. What if I’m becoming boring? Please show me that you still desire me!”

Though women complain incessantly that men don’t share their feelings, the true fear we have is that our husbands don’t actually have any, and that there really is nothing below the surface. But that’s not true. It’s just that men’s feelings are often like the deep ocean: they’re not very well explored. That doesn’t mean, though, that you can’t start an expedition.

So next time you’re boiling mad, ask yourself, “What’s really going on here? What am I actually scared of?” And then tell her that instead of blowing up. Sure you’re risking rejection, but as long as two people just yell at each other, the relationship is never going to build anything except more walls. If you could both stop lashing out, and say what’s on your hearts instead, a miracle might happen. It takes guts to open up. But opening up your heart is a whole lot more productive than just shooting off your mouth. And much more honest, too.

Maybe it’s time we all tried it.

Sheila is the author of several marriage books, including Honey, I Don’t Have a Headache Tonight: Help for women who want to feel more in the mood. You can find her speaking at marriage conferences around the country, or at www.SheilaWrayGregoire.com.

The article above was featured in the November 2008 issue of SEVEN magazine.