There’s a famous quote from the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy that says “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The idea is that the keys to a successful relationship are pretty much the same across the board: love, kindness, respect, humility, etc. However, there are a lot of ways for relationships to go wrong, as two people with their own combination of hurt, shame, pride and arrogance collide. But, at the risk of disagreeing with Tolstoy, while the specific arguments and personalities in a marriage may be unique, most marital fights do share some fairly similar traits.
Take a look at this clip from the NBC show “This is Us” and see if any of it sounds familiar. Do you recognize moments in that clip? The fight starts off with a disagreement, escalates to an argument, then one person says you aaaaaalways do this. You don’t even think about me. To which the other person says ooooh right. I’m this TERRRRIBLE spouse. You are such a brave soul having to put up with me. Old wounds resurface. Long-lingering resentments are spoken.
So how do we stop our marriages from entering these all-too-predictable martial patterns? Are there typical tendencies we all do that take a fight from a mild thunderstorm to a tornado? I recently asked some friends, family, and people on Facebook what three things escalate fights in their relationships. Here are a few of their responses:
- Sarcasm: being vulnerable in a fight is hard, it’s a lot easier to hide between a sarcastic response that twists the knife while keeping your most honest emotions – usually feeling hurt – at a distance.
- Deflection: your spouse makes a solid point, and for a split second you think okay yeah, maybe that’s true, but that would mean admitting you’re wrong and that’s no fun. So instead of dealing with your own mess you find a way your spouse has failed – now or in the past – and throw it against them.
- Accusation/Generalization: “you always,” “you hate when,” “you never,” “you don’t want,” all of these phrases are branding your spouse’s character. You’re saying “this is who you are and that’s why we’re fighting.” Spoiler alert: this tactic is usually when the nuclear button gets hit in a fight.
- Assuming the worst: If martial fights were a sporting event (they’re not), assuming the worst is the tailgate party prior. Before the fight happens, there’s the catalyzing event and your reaction to it. So it’s not that your spouse threw their shirt on the floor, it’s that they’re leaving it for you to pick up because they don’t care about you and think you’re lesser than them and they don’t see everything you’re doing and how can they be so rude and they always do this come to think of it and you never do and man was your mom right, you shouldn’t have married this person, and you deserve so much better and …
- Steamrolling: acting like a steamroller is a fun game to play with your 3-year-old, but doing it verbally to your spouse is mean. Usually one person in a marriage is more quick with words than the other person – they’re not smarter, they’re just trained in the art of speaking louder, faster, and meaner than the other person. The tendency of this person is to just bury their spouse in an avalanche of indisputable facts about their wrongness in such a compelling way they will break down into tears, fall on their face, and beg forgiveness. They don’t. They deflect or generalize as a defense mechanism and the fight gets worse. Also steamrolling is really just code for being a bully, so stop it.
- Avoiding: this one actually might be the most dangerous one on the list because if you have a fight in your marriage – even a pretty intense one – if you can both resolve it, apologize where needed, and try to learn from what happened it can still be constructive. However, some people feel so vulnerable and angry from the fight that they close themselves off emotionally until they feel safe. If this goes on too long, the fight isn’t resolved it’s just covered up. Eventually the marriage gets used to genuine marriage problems being buried, but like in a zombie movie, the dead parts of your marriage won’t stay buried forever, and when they emerge they’ll be more dangerous than they ever were before.
So for today, do you recognize any of these traits in yourself? Would you and your spouse be willing to look at this list and discuss how to avoid these pitfalls? Because at the end of the day, most happy families do look largely the same, in that you don’t see much of the above in their relationships.