I was asked to write a piece for a newsletter. Here it is, and you are the first ones to get to see it.)
“You get hit and it hurts!”
That was my husband’s answer to my question, “What’s it like?” after his first bout on the boxing team at college. (Yeah, we were in college, and we were married. I know!)
They did wear headgear, I should point out, which is more than most couples can say when they get into a fight!
This is supposed to be a piece on “How to Have Better Arguments in 2021” or “The Number One Mistake Couples Make When They Fight.” But the fact is—we now know—that there’s never a need for arguing or fighting. You get hit and it hurts. Worse! You rarely end up with even one winner. And you poison the atmosphere of your relationship.
A marriage without fighting and arguing? A fairy tale!, you say.
Nope. More like a true romance. That is, it’s totally do-able. By you. Starting today.
It does start, of course, with a disagreement.
Let’s say you wake up one day, turn vegan, and decide you want to go all vegan on MY ass. And I’m, like, nope.
So far, no fight. Just two people in two different places with two different needs. Two people feeling hurt and abandoned because they’re seem so far apart, so shocked at the other’s position.
And, most important, feeling hugely afraid and disempowered by the risk of what they might lose if the disagreement doesn’t end well. That’s, by the way, where the fighting starts: fighting is really just the “don’t mess with me” posturing we do so we don’t lose. Except our partner does the same thing. And in the end, well, “It hurts.”
But here’s what successful couples do, starting from the very same starting point.
First, they listen to each other. Okay, you have some nutty eating plan you want to roll out! So! What exactly did you have in mind? (And cancel the word nutty!) More like, “Tell me what you had in mind, exactly?” Find out everything you can about your partner’s needs, motives, plans, hopes...everything.
Then only when one of you has had what they call a full and fair hearing, switch over and give a good listening to the other partner.
See? No fight, no argument so far.
What has happened is that two people who care about each other feel heard and understood.
Second, develop some options. The options have to reflect the new reality that you listened to each other and heard each other. So your health concerns and moral issues with eating meat are important to you. Any option we put out there has to take that into account. But it also has to take into account the fact that I like eating meat and cheese and eggs and have no need or wish to change.
But, hey, you’re two smart people. And if you put your smarts into figuring out some good options—some least-bad options!—you’ll be putting your relationship in a good place. “Okay, so suppose for one month we went totally vegan at home, and of course you eat however you want at work or if we go to a restaurant. You’ll still get to eat meat every day! At the end of the month we’ll revisit the situation, and see how it’s working?”
Good! That’s one option. Come up with a couple more. Think of it as a creativity exercise. Just playing “What if...?”
But no criticizing! Just, “Okay, here’s another option...” So still: no fights, no arguments.
Then, third, you play out those options. You talk about how that would work in the reality of your life. How might things go wrong with a month of vegan dinners? How might either one of you sabotage that?
“You might cook tasteless weird boring vegan crap.” “But I wouldn’t! I want delicious meals as much as you do!”
Or, “You might not really give the vegan meals a chance.” “Look, I promise: if it’s tasty and filling, I won’t complain.”
The point is, work through all the options as if you were trying to make each one work!
What happens most of the time for most couples is that there isn’t a moment when anyone wins. It’s just that a good-enough option emerges and you’re both content to get on board with it.
And it takes less time than a fight, especially if you factor in nursing all the hurts that we walk away with after a fight. Plus you end up feeling way better about yourself as a couple.