How marital conflict can contribute to work-life balance: 5 tips to make arguments more productive
I feel I need to begin with a disclaimer. I am a therapist married to a therapist.
What happens when married therapists argue?
Sometimes people assume that our marriage has less conflict than other marriages. I don’t think that’s true. We fight just as often as other couples about many of the same topics other couples do (disagreement about parenting choices, money management, dishes in the sink, etc.).
My husband and I can both also, at times, be rather childish when in conflict. I once threw a block of cheese on the floor and stormed off to make a point. I can’t recall what point I was trying to make or even conceive what throwing cheese on the floor could ever accomplish. (For my fellow cheese lovers out there, it was old cheddar still wrapped in packaging, so aside from a dent in the corner, it was unharmed and still edible.)
I digress. One thing I think my husband and I do a bit differently than many couples are the conversations we have after an argument. Many couples will have a cool off period after an argument, and an obligatory (if not heartfelt) apology, but it usually ends there. We examine it, talk about it, own our part in it, and figure out what we could do better next time. As a result, we both feel heard (even if we still don’t agree), and have the opportunity for accepting constructive feedback.
Are you sweeping your arguments under the rug?
Let’s take an example. Imagine one spouse is fed up that there always seems to be dishes piling up in the sink despite the fact that they feel like they are constantly washing dishes. They see their partner put another dish in the sink and an argument ensues. The first partner attacks: “You never do the dishes” and the other gets defensive: “Maybe if I wasn’t so busy doing all of our laundry, I would have time to do the dishes!”. You get the idea.
Often what happens after such a spat, is that both partners go their separate ways for a bit, cool off, and either offer an obligatory apology or sweep it under the rug. The problem with that is essentially, the argument was meaningless. While it seems like maybe dishes in the sink is unimportant in the grand scheme of things, it represents a dynamic that could lead to resentment.
Imagine a volcano as a gauge for your anger. It’s usually dormant, but sometimes you see smoke rising from it. Many people are socialized in a way to want to avoid conflict, i.e.: run away from the volcano (this is where my analogy falls apart a bit, because it is probably wise to actually get some distance from a real volcano that may erupt, but stay with me.) Unlike a real volcano, anger can be addressed directly, even reasoned with.
The “sweeping under the rug” of a partner’s anger, without actually addressing the concern that started the argument to begin with, may prevent an eruption (rage), but not solve the issue. As a result, the lava (anger) oozes over the side of the volcano, and starts to pile up and cool. And after a series of arguments of not feeling heard, that anger becomes resentment. And resentment can be a relationship death sentence.
How can your arguments improve your marriage and your work-life balance?
So, what’s the alternative? I’ll be honest, the alternative is harder, more time consuming and less comfortable than avoidance. Here’s some basic steps to consider doing the next time you have just thrown a block of cheese and stormed off:
Step 1. Make the most of the cooling off period.
A common tool taught in couples’ therapy is a “timed break”. If one partner notices that the discussion is not productive, they call for a timed break from the argument. A timed break is basically a “time out” from the argument, but there is an agreed upon time to return to the conversation AND (this is key) you actually return to the conversation. This is especially effective if one partner wants to dissect every element of the argument while the other wants to run for the hills. This way you can continue the conversation when cooler heads prevail.
Even if you don’t do a time break, stepping away for a bit can be huge and prevent an argument from going completely off the rails. In my cheese throwing incident, my rational brain had left the building and at some point, my physical body joined it. I stepped out side walked around the block a few times. When you can tell that your heart rate and blood pressure have returned to normal ask yourself what you were trying to communicate and what your partner was trying to communicate.
Step 2. Ask yourself if what the fight seemed to be about was actually what the fight was about.
Feelings that we are uncomfortable with are typically communicating an unmet need. If you are able to name the feeling, it will give you a clue as to what the need is. If you know the need, you can communicate it, and it can be a step toward resolving the concern.
It’s the difference between the heat of the argument “You never do the dishes!” and the post-argument: “I feel like I’m carrying most of the responsibility of the dishwashing and would like it if you helped out more”. Imagine your child’s birthday is approaching and you can’t seem to get on the same page about a party (if there should be one, how many guests, etc.). It turns into a fight about how one like to “throw money away” and the other is a “cheapskate”. Is this a fight you’ve had before, perhaps many times? What’s it about? Instead of name calling and getting hostile about the cost of cupcakes, this may be an opportunity for a clearer money planning and budget discussion.
Step 3. Think about how you could communicate better—that means speaking and listening.
When I threw the block of cheese, I was in a bad space internally, that had very little to do with my husband and even less to do with cheese. Having the chance to tune into it gave us an opportunity to talk about some inner struggles that I was not sharing with anyone. If it’s about the dishes then make it about the dishes, but if it’s about feeling unappreciated or overwhelmed then don’t get lost in talking about the dishes.
Focus on both hearing what your partner is trying to convey (even if you disagree!) as well as expressing what you wanted to share. This sounds so much simpler than it is. It is really easy to get caught in making a point and being right. And you know what? You might be right. That’s actually not what the purpose of the argument is.
Being right is rational. Arguments are emotional.
My husband and I joke that we sometimes forget that we are on the same team, because in an argument your partner becomes an adversary. Hopefully the cooling off period allowed you to remember that you are on the same team. It doesn’t mean you are no longer angry. It doesn’t mean you agree with them. But you love them and they are upset. Hear them out. Show them that you are hearing them, by using reflective listening (ex: “You’re frustrated because you think I don’t appreciate all the work you do around the house”.) You’d be surprised by how far this can take you.
Step 4. Own your stuff, and don’t take on their stuff.
This can be the hardest step. It requires a level of self awareness that tends to fly out the door during conflict. Obviously as a therapist, I am biased about the value of therapy, but it can be an opportunity to explore what tends to set you off. Often when couples come to me interested in relationship counseling, it becomes clear that the issues they’re presenting in the session may be addressed more effectively in an individual counseling situation.
If you notice that you are having the same argument over and over, identify the feelings underneath the anger. Do you feel sad? Lonely? Ashamed? Powerless? These issues might be worth exploring in a therapy session, or at least journaling or speaking to a trusted friend about.
On the flip side, sometimes one partner takes too much responsibility for the faults that arise and that is important to explore as well. If you find you are frequently the one apologizing and doing the work to “make things right”, step back and consider if you are taking on issues that aren’t yours.
Step 5. Do it again - you will argue over and over again.
The reality is we essentially keep having the same fights over and over again if we haven’t successfully resolved the issue. And humans can be slow to change. You can’t just write: “Get my partner to understand me” on your to do list and cross it off after one good conversation. It’s like laundry, never fully complete.
The good news is, like any other skill, couples can get better at arguing with practice. You may start to be aware of the issues that arise repeatedly. For example, if you are consistently arguing about one partner being too permissive and the other being too strict, the specifics of the fight (such as disagreements about bed times, sugar intake, screen time, etc.) are less important than figuring about how you make parenting decisions. If you can problem solve together about decision making then you have a plan in place that can reduce the “meaningless” fights. And when the topic comes up again (and it will!) and emotions start to run high (and they will!) your decision-making conversation can help anchor you back to a resolution.
What stands in your way of communicating your needs? Let us know in the comments section below.