Bob and Laurie Pacer used to handle conflict like a kid's game of dodge ball: She would lob an issue, and he'd try to duck it.
“Laurie would almost have to chase me around to talk,” Mr. Pacer, 54, admits. “I would withdraw. I would avoid. .. I don't like conflict.”
She'd wait for an opportunity, then pounce. “Like when we'd be in the car. I knew I'd have a captive audience and I'd yell at him then,” Mrs. Pacer, 51, remembers. He had his little tricks, too, like not going to bed at night until she was asleep.
The Delta couple almost split up 10 years ago, partly as a result of Mrs. Pacer's anger and frustration over her husband's refusal to deal with problems. They found help, a better way to handle disagreements, and new life for their marriage.
Turns out that couples need to argue.
Even the most loving partners get ticked off at each other now and then, whether it's over major issues like sex, money, and parenting, or the small stuff, like putting the cap back on the toothpaste.
But while conflict is inevitable, it doesn't have to get ugly. Rules of fair fighting apply in relationships just as they do in fisticuffs. And although couples will never agree on everything, a “good” fight can resolve issues in a way that brings the partners closer, marriage counselors say.
“A lot of people don't realize that to be really intimate requires dealing with conflict,” says Kevin Anderson, a psychologist, author, and founder of Center for Life Balance in Monclova. “It's not a barrier to intimacy. It creates intimacy.”
“Fighting is not only normal, it's necessary,” says Mike Roehrs, a local licensed independent social worker (LISW) at Fort Meigs Psychological Group in Perrysburg. Mr. Roehrs, who specializes in marriage and family counseling, adds that,“The couples that scare me the most say they never fight.”
Such people may be easy-going sorts who avoid conflicts over the years. But when a major issue surfaces that they can't ignore, “they don't have a model to resolve things. ... It's very upsetting to them,” Mr. Roehrs explains.
Research shows that the No. 1 predictor of divorce is the habitual avoidance of conflict, says Diane Sollee, founder and director of the Washington-based Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education and the annual Smart Marriages/Happy Families Conference.
“You will have differences, starting on the honeymoon,” she says in a telephone interview from Reno, where the seventh annual Smart Marriages conference was held June 26-29. But that's one of the benefits of marriage, Ms. Sollee declares - you have two minds and two perspectives. “You're a team.”
According to the coalition, couples who stay happily married disagree the same amount as couples who divorce, and about all the same issues. The difference is their attitude about disagreement, and how they handle it.
Mr. Roehrs says that what goes on between fights is important, too. If the partners are loving, respectful, and attentive between storms, it's easier to weather those bad times, he says.
“The best thing you can do when you're not fighting is to pay attention to your spouse,” Mr. Roehrs advises.
But sustaining a relationship isn't for wimps.
“It's hard work to live with somebody day in and day out,” says Ron Boudouris, LISW at Family Service of Northwest Ohio, “but it can be very rewarding as well.”
Respect your partner, listen closely, and be willing to admit when you're wrong, he advises.
“When your partner is offering up an issue, try to understand what they're saying rather than quickly going into defensive mode,” Mr. Boudouris continues. That keeps an argument from quickly deteriorating into a see-saw of blaming and denying.
Being defensive is one of the don'ts of what's called “productive arguing,” because it's aimed at proving we're right, not at finding a solution. Here are a few more:
Dr. Anderson, of Center for Life Balance, addresses conflict resolution in a book he's writing about practices that make for a great marriage. He breaks the process into seven steps and compares it to learning a skill such as swinging a golf club. “Once you get good at it, it's a natural process,” he adds.
Step One: Have a conflict.
“It sounds easy, but for some people it's not,” Dr. Anderson says. Some people avoid conflict because they're afraid they can't handle it, or they're trying to live the image of the perfect couple. “Usually it's the way we're brought up,” he continues. Maybe our parents stifled disagreements, so we do, too. Maybe they disagreed too often, too loudly, too disrespectfully, so we vowed we'd never do the same thing.
Second, take a break if things heat up too much. Dr. Anderson encourages couples to agree in advance on a phrase or signal for a time-out. If one party uses it, the other must honor it, but the system also includes the stipulation that they'll get back together to address the issue once things calm down.
“We used to tell people, get it out. Now we say, stop it. It will just create wounds and make things worse,” he explains. The idea is that you can't have a meaningful discussion when your heart is pounding and you're awash in adrenaline.
Physical connection - and reconnection - is important, he continues. During the discussion, sit close enough to have your knees touch, or hold hands. Afterward, be the first one to offer a hug to the other, Dr. Anderson says.
What he calls “a mutual no-fault apology” is another part of reconnection. That means saying you're sorry for what happened without accepting or placing any blame: “I'm sorry we had that fight,” for example.
“Empathetic listening” or “deep listening” is the guts of the process, Dr. Anderson says. One person talks and the other listens without rebutting or interrupting, other than to paraphrase what the speaker is saying or to ask for more information. The speaker uses “I language”: “I feel this” and so forth, not “You language,” which is accusatory.
Then the other person gets the floor.
“It's easy to teach, but it is hard for people to do,” Dr. Anderson acknowledges. “They want to switch roles.”
Depending on the issue, the parties then can move into problem-solving mode. “If you're fighting over who is going to do the dishes, or give the kids baths, or how many hours you're working, those are solvable,” he notes. During the brainstorming session, the partners think of as many possible solutions as they can.
If it doesn't work, they'll have to address the situation again. “The really mature approach to marriage is the willingness to engage the same issue more than once if necessary,” Dr. Anderson points out. “A good farmer knows you plow the same soil every spring, and that's just the way it is. Be willing to work the same soil over and over.”
Some perpetual issues defy quick and easy resolution. “Perpetual issues are going to require repeated interactions, perhaps over years, and a couple can slowly and gradually learn to live with them and possibly solve them,” he says.
Sometimes you just have to agree to disagree on those stubborn issues. “They're the ones that force us to accept the other person as they are, rather than as we'd like them to be,” Dr. Anderson observes.