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How to Stop Fighting With Your Spouse

What to do when fighting goes nowhere and even makes things worse.

Years back, I saw a high-powered, professional couple in San Francisco who went at each other’s throats, verbally speaking, 24/7. Everything turned into an epic battle—whether the issue was eating meals, having sex, planning vacations, spending and saving money, decorating the house, rearing kids, or dealing with in-laws and ex-spouses. When they fought, they would revisit one old hurt after another, and never resolve anything.

Both claimed they were powerless to control their tempers. Then, a distinguished British professor came to stay with them as their house guest for several months, living in a guest room adjacent to their bedroom. “During that time, we never raised our voices,” the wife told me. “We were pretty courteous with each other. Pride, I guess.” They both agreed it was the best several months of their marriage.

I wish I had a distinguished British house guest to loan out to all my readers and therapy clients. But I don’t. You'll just have to believe me when I tell you that you are capable of adjusting your behavior. It’s all about motivation and following a couple of rules.

Where to start? The first rule is to make rules for how you as a couple will treat each other—rules you are responsible for following even in the heat of the moment. Like the couple I just described, we often act as if the intensity of our anger gives us license to say or do anything, because, after all, we’re way too furious to be able to stop what’s coming out of our mouth.

Of course, we can stop ourselves and behave better—that is if we have a genuine intention to have a better marriage. If you or your partner can’t keep your anger from getting out of control, it’s important to get professional help.

Begin by sitting down with your partner and coming up with a few rules of your own. These might be, for example, “No yelling or name-calling,“ “No bringing up past grievances during a fight,” and “No bringing up problems at bedtime.” Many couples find it helpful to keep a written copy of the rules in a place where both will see it daily.

The second rule is to take the responsibility to change first and make a sincere effort to keep fighting and negativity from escalating. Instead of waiting for your partner to do the right thing, take the initiative to add a note of humor or calm into a downward-spiraling conflict, or to postpone the exchange to a future time.

It doesn’t matter whether you use humor, or touch, or a simple refusal to participate in a non-productive exchange by saying something like, “If you want me to listen, get out of your debate posture!” The efforts you make to change the tone (or volume) of an increasingly nasty exchange can, over time, save and strengthen your marriage.

Of course, we want our partner to be the one to de-escalate and apologize first, especially if we’re convinced that he “started it” and is the one to blame. We lose sight of the fact that true victory lies in stopping the fight, and then making your point at a calmer time.

Don’t continue to participate in downward spiraling fights that go nowhere and threaten the foundation of friendship and respect on which a good marriage is based. Happy couples are not couples that don’t fight. Rather they’re couples that fight fair, and take responsibility for their own words and actions, no matter how furious they may feel inside.