Dear Dr. Chani,
My wife and I were married a few months ago. As a newlywed, I had expected to have some disputes with my wife every so often. Yet, I was actually surprised by how much we have been fighting. It seems like every time I turn around, we are in an argument about something—big or small. I would like to stop this vicious cycle that is so disappointing and emotionally draining.
We tend to fight about the little things. Household responsibilities are a big sore point. We are constantly squabbling about whose turn it is to do the laundry, wash the dishes or clean the living room. We tried to divide up the jobs but if my wife feels that I am not keeping up my side of the bargain, she stops doing her jobs. I try my best but sometimes I am unable to get to the cleaning and the dishes by the end of the night. I wish she would cut me some slack.
Another major point of contention is the way her family intervenes in our day-to-day lives. Her mother calls her several times a day and asks about specific details of what is going on with us. They also expect us to show up at family get-togethers—which happen at least once a week. I feel it is as if she still lives in her mother’s house even though technically we live in our own apartment. The family ties are very constricting.
One of the things that my wife complains about is that I do not listen to her. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whenever she speaks, I do nothing but listen to her. I try to hear everything that she says and to respond to it. Sometimes I even want to record our conversations just to prove to her through the back and forth how I must be listening to her. I have no idea why she insists that I do not listen to her.
I love my wife. I am so happy to be married to her. Yet, the daily tension is hurting me and wearing me down. What can I do to stop us from fighting all the time?
Thanks in advance,
The conflicts you are having in your marriage are understandably disheartening. Surprisingly, this dynamic is more common than you would imagine. Think about it. You and your wife are two different people, coming from separate backgrounds, with your own unique perspectives. personalities and needs. It makes sense that your transition to creating a harmonious married life will take a lot of time, effort and communication. Your commitment to figure out what you can do to improve this dynamic is the first essential step towards the light at the end of the tunnel.
The cycle of conflict that you are experiencing first needs to be understood. It is important to recognize that every couple has specific issues that they tend to disagree about. Dr. John M. Gottman, one of the world’s most prolific scientific researchers on couples, has found that 69% of conflicts that couples have are about perpetual problems. That means that most of the conflicts will never be fully resolved. They will be encountered over and over again. These conflicts stem from differences between the spouses they will never change.
So how can you stop the cycle of conflict? The key to a calm and harmonious marriage is to learn how to effectively discuss and manage perpetual issues.
When couples argue, most people keep repeating their positions in the argument. They express their opinions and supporting facts in their attempt to convince their spouse to concede to their point of view. Yet, this tactic never allows you to get to the underlying source of the argument. Like an iceberg facing the Titanic, there is often much more to an argument than appears on the surface. To break this cycle, you need to develop good habits for listening, especially in an argument.
It sounds like your wife is already attuned to the importance of listening. When your wife says that you do not listen, she probably does not mean that you do not technically hear her. You may be listening very well. But what is your goal? When you listen to your wife, is your goal to hear her points so that you can respond with your own perspective? Are you listening to be able to assert your own point of view? That is effective for debating, but it is not the kind of listening that she needs. In marriage, you do not want to be the winner of a debate. You want both you and your wife to be on a winning team!
When your wife asks you to listen better, what does she mean? Your wife wants you to listen to her with a specific goal. She wants you to listen for the purpose of understanding her. She wants you to ask her questions about what is bothering her and listen to her response. She wants you to put yourself into her shoes and try to see things from her point of view.
Here is how you can put that into practice. When you are discussing a particular issue, ask your wife about three significant aspects: her needs, past experiences and expectations. That way, you can get closer to understanding what is at the heart of the issue that she is upset about. It is important both for you to arrive at that insight and for your wife to feel the interest that you have in understanding her more. For example, you may ask her: “What do you need when it comes to maintaining your relationship with your family?” “What were your past experiences with being able to balance your relationship with your family and other relationships?” “What did you expect transitioning to marriage would be like when it comes to your relationship with your family?” Listen with the goal of understanding where your wife is coming from. Ask her open-ended questions to get more clarity.
After you feel you can express your wife’s point of view, let her know you understood her by paraphrasing what you heard her say. Even if you say, “I understand,” she will not know that you truly understood. Only by actually communicating what you heard her say and paraphrasing it in your own words will she truly know that you “got” her.
Once she agrees that you understood her, then you can share your own point of view. The goal is not to win the debate or convince her. The goal is for you to share your own answers to the questions posed above so that both of you can understand one another.
In an argument, you are usually not just fighting about the facts. Listening to your wife explain the thoughts and feelings behind the position that she has in an argument allows you to identify what is underneath the argument. For example, your quarrels about the housework are not just about the messy house—it means something to her. You might feel it is not such a big deal if the house is cluttered or the dishes sit in the sink another day. Yet, for example, she might be interpreting your behavior as a signal that you are not willing to put in the effort to take care of her.
Going a step further, surprisingly, the underlying source of the conflict may not really be the housework at all. Sometimes issues arise in one area of marriage but they are brushed under the rug and not discussed. Then the resentment and frustration arising from that area gets expressed in another area of your relationship. For example, if your wife feels pulled between you and her family, her stress can be expressed in her frustration with you about the housework.
One common phenomenon where this occurs is when a couple has an issue in the bedroom. Since these conversations are very personal and vulnerable they can often go for a long time without being discussed. Yet these tensions inevitably spill over into other areas of your relationship.
So when you find yourself in a heated argument about the unwashed dishes, even if the trigger for the argument is really about the dishes, an underlying resentment about a significant problem elsewhere in your marriage may be why the dishes turn into such a big deal.
You can prevent these kinds of arguments from popping up by proactively engaging in exploratory conversations to discover more about each other. These discussions that allow you to both freely share your thoughts and feelings will teach you about matters that are likely to trigger a conflict. The more you know each other well, the more you can learn how to avoid these conflicts or develop ways to deal with them calmly and respectfully.
Above all, keep in mind that every time you have an opportunity to set aside your own needs in order to meet your spouse’s needs, you are not only avoiding a conflict. You are actually serving your own interests as well. Even though it might seem like you are sacrificing in the short-term, you are ultimately gaining your long-term goal—to develop a satisfying and fulfilling marriage.
Wishing you much success,
Dr. Chani Maybruch is a social psychologist and relationship coach, specializing in teaching emotional connection and communication skills for over two decades. She coaches individuals and couples, and teaches online courses to help you create your ideal relationship. Get free relationship resources and contact her at www.chanimaybruch.com.