Love + Marriage

Fighting Fairly


Is there a nice way to argue? Choe Brereton talks us through it. 

If you think about it, arguments are a little paradoxical: on one hand most marriage counsellors – old-school and new – view them as “healthy”, yet on the other, they can be painful, divisive and bad for your health. Literally. High blood pressure, hardened arteries – I’ve read all about it.

In my quaint little world I’ve always been a terrible arguer. As a thinker, clamming up and saying nothing has been as good an option as any. If nothing else, I’ve avoided exposing how utterly pants I am at getting my point across, which, by the way, always comes out as a disjointed train of weak, airy, unsubstantiated reasoning.
Growing up should have helped, but it didn’t. Come the first year of marriage, I was still the one staring mindlessly into the dark replaying the argument through a heated internal dialogue, except in my version, I never bombed at making my point. It was like an alternate utopian universe where I would be the one sleeping peacefully and he would be the one awake, staring at the ceiling cracks and listening to the stupid dog next door bark at car headlights.
At one stage though, something shifted. I found my voice and became less about thinking and more about payback. I regressed into an adolescent-like miasma of retribution and immaturity. Our way of arguing evolved; it was no longer kind or conciliatory and what was left afterwards became harder and harder to repair. Somehow, I was convinced my opinion didn’t matter, that how I felt – whether I cried or turned to stone – was irrelevant. His complaint was far more straightforward. He hated the way I spoke to him. Rude he called it, rude and horrible.
On particularly bad days we turned scary, like monsters. I fought to wound just to be heard. He lost his warmth and became hard and detached. After an intense first year I became worried but vigilant. I stopped to brood and look: at me, at us, at my love. What I saw was unfamiliar, confronting, like taking in the wreckage of separation or grief. He always said my words cut. At the time I hadn’t really understood, but now, tense and sapped of his tenderness, I saw what he meant. He seemed a different person: dimmed, defensive, less in love.
I panicked. We had both screwed up, but I knew I’d screwed up more. I adored him but fought dirty, like he was my enemy. I wanted to make him happy, but destroyed his admiration with words I could never take back. I wanted to feel validated but drew blood to make my point. In truth, I had missed the point all together. I thought arguments were about winning; about standing your ground and getting what you wanted.
We were clearly two different people trying to work as a cohesive unit. Disagreements were bound to happen. They were normal and, when handled well, healthy. We had to talk. I needed to be heard and validated, he needed to be approached with a tame tongue. The challenge was never to stop our disputes but rather to have them in a safe and fair way. That took time. Old habits needed breaking. I had to become a thinker again – about my words and even my tone of voice. Eventually, arguments became discussions and discussions slowly eased back to talks before bed or over a glass of wine. In the end what proved the most valid exercise was thinking back on our relationship; what it meant to us and what we wanted to see continually pulse and flourish through it.
We stand our ground still on what is important, like making time to add warmth and colour to our marriage, but if it happens that we really can’t agree, then compromise is just as beautiful.
I suppose at its most basic, how we choose to disagree simply comes down to priorities. That’s what I think, or perhaps I’ve learnt. I care, above all else, how he feels and whether he’s happy. If the way I behave negatively affects that, then I stop. It’s a two-way thing! It has to be. Winning or losing has nothing to do with it.
Sure, it’s easy to speak your mind, but probably more beneficial to think things through first. What we say and how we say it is important to healthy disagreement, as is listening, compromise and saying sorry, sorry and sorry.

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