-- Question for John --
My husband and I have been married for two years now. I truly believe he is my best friend and soulmate. But lately we’ve been arguing a lot. Even on the phone we tend to argue about small, petty things. I feel like he takes a lot of anger out on me and I always seem to get my feelings hurt.
He has a real tendency to shut down — as do I — but then we end up fighting all over again. Any idea what I should do? How do we bring up issues without getting defensive?
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-- Answer from John --
Arguments can erode any relationship, no matter how much love is there. Love is not enough. It is destructive to keep arguing or reacting when trying to communicate. Sooner or later, things get said or done that cannot be taken back.
You are digging yourselves into a deep hole. People inside that hole are blaming, being critical, condemning each other, getting defensive, shutting down, or stonewalling. Nothing ever gets resolved in that hole. But most couples act as if they truly believe there is a pile of precious gold at the bottom. They are incorrect.
You can only resolve your issues when you are outside that hole, when you are being resourceful and constructive. So it’s important for you to know rule one for what to do when you find you’re in a deep, dark hole: “Stop digging!”
Whenever you start to get upset, when things are headed towards that hole, it will better serve you to take a time out.
Say, “I am getting a bit overwhelmed right now. I need to take some time out to clear my head. Can we get back together later, once I get more centered? I do want to make positive progress on this issue.”
Use your time out wisely. Physical activity can be used to burn off the excess energy. Go for a walk. Meditate. Breathe. Center yourself. Visualize a positive outcome for your future discussion. Researchers have measured that it takes at least an hour to calm down and become more resourceful. Do not attempt to discuss a topic again until you know you are ready. Otherwise, things will only escalate further.
Taking time outs should not be used as a way to avoid difficult topics. Things will not “just work themselves out” without your participation. You can learn to work though charged topics with greater ease and skill. This takes practice — and perhaps courage, at first. The intent of taking time out is to come back with the best of who you are — and find a mutually workable resolution.
Research studies have looked for the key difference between couples who happily stay together versus those who split up. This may surprise you. It turns out that couples who stay together had no fewer issues to resolve than couples who split up. The real key is that couples who stay together learn better skills to get through their issues.
If you want a lasting marriage, you will need to upgrade your skills. There’s no way around that. Time out is a first skill. Beyond taking time out, you may want to learn other communication tools and inner skills such as how to better manage your upset feelings so that they don’t take you to the hole.
I suggest you sit down with your partner soon and invite him to join you in learning tools that will help you resolve conflicts. Get self-help books, take a class, or get a little counseling. You have an incredibly important opportunity here. You can now dramatically increase your chances of beating the odds and enjoying a longterm marriage filled with lasting love and happiness.