A few weeks ago Todd and I had one of our bigger arguments. Regrettably, it was in front of the kids. Our voices were raised and our anger and frustration was obvious. It was more intense than I anticipated; we were both raw and thin with each other after a few long days of emotional junk had piled up between us.
Of course, it occurred during the harried-even-on-a-good-day bath and bedtime routine. What is it about these kinds of mundane rituals that make us want to snap?
As I was helping towel off my middle daughter (bless her heart) she whispered her concern to me with tears in her eyes: “Are you guys going to get a divorce?”
Todd and I don’t have arguments that often, and almost never in front of the kids, so she didn’t know what happens next when adults fight. I reassured her that sometimes the people we love most are also the ones who drive us the craziest, but that arguments are normal and our marriage is fine.
I declared a personal truce for a moment and whispered to Todd that if we had to have this argument in front of the kids, we should at least show them how to properly finish it. He agreed, and we apologized to each other for our sharp words and loud voices and promised to resume the conversation later with cooler heads. We hugged it out where the kids could see, then resumed the bedtime routine of brushing teeth, reading stories, and saying prayers. All was calm again.
We did pick up the argument again later, after we’d both had a chance to figure out what was really bothering us.
Arguments are not bad. Conflict can be good when handled correctly. But I know many Christians who think the end times are upon us if they see their leaders disagreeing about marriage equality or racism or the economy or women’s rights or whatever issue is currently dominating the news cycle. They think public arguments are divisive and work against Christian unity. They fear the bad optics of a poorly argued point reduce Christians to squabbling children, not bearers of the good news of God’s grace. And just like Ava, they’re afraid these rifts will cause permanent damage.
Not so. Fighting isn’t bad, especially when done fairly. Here are 5 things I’ve learned about fighting fair:
1. Arguments often come from a perceived imbalance of power. When I feel like I’ve been doing more than my fair share with the kids and the house and my job, I’m more likely to complain about it. Or if I feel I’ve been treated unfairly, it’s pretty certain that I’ll say something. And if you tell me to just let it go? Watch out. But when I feel like I’ve been heard, even if you disagree, I’m much more likely to check my anger and proceed calmly. When the scales are balanced, it’s easier to speak freely.
2. Arguments are brave. How many times have you just thrown up your hands and given up instead of saying what you really needed to say? When you decide to engage in an argument, you’ve decided you are worth being heard and that the relationship is worth repairing. And the person who is listening? Also brave! Being compassionate can cost you, but it points to a willingness to work through a problem rather than amp it up or stuff it down. Brave.
3. It’s not what you say but how you say it. I can get snarky, sarcastic, and dismissive when I feel attacked, so I have to work even harder to say exactly what I’m feeling in a just-the-facts-ma’am tone. But I find that I can say literally anything to my husband if I say it calmly. Another tactic I employ is asking questions, like, “please tell me what you were thinking/feeling when you said/did that”. This strategy helps me get down to why something happened without name-calling or character assassination.
4. Notice patterns. Do you argue more when you’re limping toward payday? During the long, dark, cold days of winter? Following an illness? Just before a business trip or family event? Take these things–and the underlying emotions that go with them–into account before launching into a tirade. A little compassion goes a long way. Do you argue about the same things over and over again? Start looking for patterns. Encourage your partner to do the same. This can turn an argument into a less emotionally-charged problem-solving experiment.
5. A fair fight is like a fire: it makes room for new growth. It might even bring you closer.
In what ways have you learned to fight fairly? What would you add to this list?