“How couples argue and disagree about issues appears to be more consequential to the success of marriage than what they argue about or how often they experience conflicts.”
To reword the above quote taken from an article by Hanzal and Segrin in the Journal of Family Communication, you could simply say “how we fight has far more influence on the future of our marriage, than what we fight about”.
Therefore, our fighting style, or how we fight, really matters.
Before I get into the different styles of fighting, we need to be aware that gender differences make a big difference in our fights. In fact, a husband and a wife will experience the same fight differently. Not just because they have different perspectives, but because they are different genders.
You might not be a typical couple, and that’s not necessarily a problem, but the following things, about how most couples operate are good to keep in mind.
Women tend to be more negative in conflict and use confrontational behaviors that say “this is all about me”, rather than the marriage. The behaviors include being demanding, hostile, threatening, insulting and insisting that all the change should come from their husband.
But to stereotype men for a moment… Men are more likely to avoid. They get scared of the big emotions, so feel safer avoiding them altogether.
Another thing for men to keep in mind is that the less influence a woman feels she has in her marriage, the bigger the artillery she has to use to gain influence, so the more confrontational she will be.
Husbands, if you want a happier wife, receive her influence!
Remember, both husband and wife have the same end goal of trying to save the marriage, but they come at it from two completely different angles.
One thing that surprised me when Caleb and I were discussing the fighting in marriage, was that an angry wife has a far greater negative impact on marital satisfaction than an equally angry husband. The Proverb that says ”It is better to live in a desert land than with a quarrelsome and fretful woman” apparently is very true!
Wives, we need to take our anger seriously! It not only lowers our marriage satisfaction but our husband’s as well.
The angrier we become (this goes for both husbands and wives but I’m specifically thinking of woman), the more tempted we are to use nasty behavior such as demand, withdrawal, contempt, and criticism; all of which are particularly corrosive to marital well-being.
So now that we know that our fighting style really matters and that each gender comes at a fight a different way, let’s look at some of the different styles of fighting in marriage.
This model of fighting styles is taken from Dr. Gottman’s study in 1993. The first three are functional and work fine. The last two are considered unstable.
Avoiders don’t think they are avoiders but don’t have any specific strategies for resolving conflict. They may wait stuff out or even talk stuff out, but never really go deep with each other. They kind of state their points, reaffirm their common ground and move on after coming up with some ambiguous solution. The challenge with an avoider’s marriage over the long term is that you can end up distant and lonely.
Volatiles come straight at each other. They disagree and try to persuade each other. They produce a lot of drama: both positive and negative. They value arguing and really work hard at convincing each other. These folks can bicker pretty good but passionate love-making with likely follow.
Validators tend to walk the middle line. There is conflict but there’s ease and calm too and each spouse is trying to validate the other. This could look like clear empathy or a lot of “Mm hmm’s”. If you see this couple in conflict, you get the idea that they are both working together on a problem. This is a calmer approach to marriage, and it sounds rosy (and is!) but the romance can dissipate and the marriage can end up as a close friendship.
Hostiles have very negative conversations. There is always lots of defensiveness, lots of globalizing and each spouse is very judgmental. It is always a downward spiral.
Hostile/Detached couples normally have little or no emotional involvement with each other. Occasionally they may get into a hostile spat, often about trivial matters.
So, what kind of couple are you?
Ideally, you want to be validators and have a little avoidance so you know you’re normal and then a sprinkle of volatility just to spice things up a bit!
How Can We Do Better?
Avoiders: Agree to start opening up to each other. Make sure you grab our Talk To Me 101 course that teaches you communication and conflict resolution skills.
Volatiles: You’re doing ok, but make sure you catch next week’s episode on fighting ground rules. Be careful you don’t shift to hostile and remember you need to have a solid fondness and admiration system as a base in your marriage.
Validators: Watch out for differentiation. This is the ideal model in behavior marital therapy but there is a point where you need to cut the empathy and tell your spouse the uncomfortable things they may need to hear. We never grow if we don’t know that we need to!
Hostiles or Hostile/Detached: These styles are destructive so please, actively seek help. At the very least, get some good books, like Dr. Gottman’s; ideally, get coaching or counseling.
Be sure to catch the fourth episode of our fighting series, which will be published in two weeks, about how to repair after a fight. This is a critical skill if you want to stay married!