Yesterday morning, during my workout, I watched “The Andy Griffith Show” episode where Opie enters the 50-yard dash contest. Barney devises a training regimen and convinces Opie that winning is a sure thing. When Opie loses, he becomes despondent and rude. Exasperated, Andy expresses his disappointment in Opie’s decision to be a sore loser. In that moment Opie realizes he is risking losing something far more valuable than a medal — his father’s respect. Anxious to regain his father’s approval, Opie follows Andy to the sheriff’s office to declare he doesn’t want him to be disappointed. Andy tells Opie he doesn’t expect him to be happy about losing. He explains that while it’s easy to be a winner, it’s much harder, but just as important, to be a good loser.
Reflecting on this account of gaining personal maturity, it occurred to me that a similar lesson is relevant to marriage. It’s easy to be married when everything is going well. It’s much harder when problems arise. But it is just as important to be committed to the relationship when the going is rough as when it’s smooth.
Conflict is the last thing most couples want to think about around Valentine’s Day, but being prepared to effectively manage conflict can mean the difference between celebrating one romantic day a year and spending a lifetime in a deeply, mutually satisfying relationship.
Remember conflict is natural in any intimate relationship. Arguing can even be a growth-promoting activity when conducted properly. Here are some suggested guidelines for keeping arguments safe and productive:
Keep the goal in mind. The goal of effective arguing is resolution of an issue in a manner that allows both parties to emerge whole with the relationship intact and undamaged. Not necessarily unchanged, but undamaged.
Clarify the issue. Define the issue as precisely as possible. Be sure both parties are clear about what is being addressed. It is much easier to find a solution to a well-defined problem.
Argue after thinking. Avoid addressing important issues on the spur of the moment. Spend time giving the issue some thoughtful consideration so you can calmly articulate your position. Set aside time to adequately explore the issue.
Agree to argue responsibly and respectfully. Accurately identify own your feelings so that you can effectively express them. Think before you speak. Once spoken, words cannot be unspoken. Speak in the way you would like to be spoken to. Say what needs to be said in a way that is most likely to be heard by your partner. Refuse to undermine the argument with destructive tactics like ultimatums, accusations, personal attacks, name calling, bringing up the past, or the silent treatment. Never resort to exploiting your partner’s insecurities or shortcomings, unless of course yours are fair game. It’s OK to be mad. It’s not OK to be mean.
Use effective communication skills. Check out your perceptions, impressions, and assumptions by repeating your understanding of the message you received. Identify areas of agreement. Use them to keep your differences in perspective. Keep the focus on the issue at hand.
Stay in the present. Avoid turning conflict into a competition. In marriage, if one loses, you both lose.
Be honest. Openly express your thoughts, opinions, and preferences. Speak about yourself, not about your partner. Being honest is not a license to be cruel. Saying what is on your mind does not mean you are right, accurate, or have a corner on the truth. It simply means that you are sharing your perspective openly. No two people see things exactly the same way, no matter how sincerely they love each other. Work toward creating a shared perspective.
Use humor when possible and appropriate. Humor can relieve tension as long as it is not used to avoid the situation or belittle your partner. Laughter can be healing unless it is intended to hurt. A good rule of thumb is it’s OK if both people are laughing.
Take a break. If the argument becomes unproductive or counterproductive, agree to step away. Set a definite time to resume, sooner rather than later. Use the break to regain your focus and perspective. Take a walk. Better yet, take a walk together. Walking stimulates the mind and inspires creativity. It may be easier to reach resolution side by side rather than face to face.
Seek closure. When both partners agree the conflict is resolved, put the solution into effect, congratulate one another, and move on. Remember you’re not going to agree on everything. Know when to agree to disagree.
Get help. Frequent arguing or arguing for no legitimate reason may be symptoms of a more serious problem. Seek professional counseling before what is merely an irritation becomes a crisis.
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These guidelines may seem unnatural and uncomfortable at first, but with practice you can become as proficient at effective arguing as you have been at ineffective arguing.
Conflict is inevitable in marriage. Romance is one of the first casualties of unresolved conflict. Carefully consider what you are willing to risk for the sake of the argument.
Carolyn Waterbury-Tieman is a resident of Lexington, Kentucky. She has degrees in Child Development, Family Studies, and Marriage and Family Therapy. Waterbury-Tieman has been married for 29 years and has two sons, ages 24 and 14. She spent 15 years in various agencies and clinics as a family therapist and parent educator and has written extensively on the topic of parenting. After six years as Arts Facilitator for the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, she chose to return to her favorite place of employment – home. To contact her, please e-mail paren