How Can Arguing Actually Improve Your Marriage? Six Tips

It's in the way you talk.

Posted Mar 10, 2011

Remarriage with Children is Tough. But the Way You Talk Can Change Everything

I am going to say something that will make you want to hit your head against the wall, it's so obvious: Remarriage with children is difficult. Here's the part that's less obvious: talking to your spouse or partner about the difficulties of remarriage with children can be more difficult still.

You may already know why remarriage with children is difficult. Exes who are angry or even vindictive about the remarriage; children of any age in loyalty binds; divorced dads/husbands who parent from guilt and fear, and fail to protect their wives or partners from the fall-out of those kids' loyalty binds (usually hostility and rejection). Wives who are unprotected become easy targets, collateral damage in the long-raging divorce war.

Yes, you probably already know that there are myriad factors beyond your control contributing to the stress you feel in your remarriage with children. Now what? Being you-relational, smart, driven to fix the mess-you will want to talk to your husband about it. You have talked about it. And it hasn't worked. In fact, more often than not the talks have devolved into arguments. Your husband says things like, "Why can't you just let it go?" and "This again? Why can't you stop?" Or maybe he listens initially, but then it turns into the same old same old argument with the same old accusations. You end up screaming. He says you're "out of control" and shuts you down by walking out of the room or refusing to talk. That just makes you feel angrier, even more isolated and hopeless. On your worst days you want a divorce because you are in an impossible position: if you speak about what is destroying you and your marriage-problems with his kids, the way they treat you, for example--it will start another argument, and you will be blamed again. "They're hardly ever here. Can't you just STOP?"

Last time I wrote about how going on a "stepmother strike" could actually decrease your resentment of your husband's children and help you reset the balance of power in your life, your marriage or partnership, and your home. But how do you have the tough conversation with your husband or partner-the one about going on strike,  or adjusting the boundaries of your household regarding phone calls from his ex, drop ins and scheduled time with his kids? How do you talk about charged topics like who pays for what with his kids, or rules about how they behave in your home, without setting the house on fire? How can you make changes if you can't convince your husband that changes need to be made? And how can you convince him?

Stop right there. Here are some tips for communicating with your husband or partner who is a divorced dad. They will make you roll your eyes and groan, "I've heard all this before," as I did for years. Until you try them, really really try them, and they work. And one day, mid charged discussion,  your husband looks at you like, "Hey, who are you? And what did you do with my wife?" And the way he speaks to you starts to shift. And soon the dynamics of your marriage or partnership start to shift too. I'm not kidding. If you don't believe me, ask experts on relationships and communication like John Gottman, or experts on remarriage with children like Mavis Hetherington, Constance Ahrons, James Bray and Patricia Papernow. They suggest things along these lines...and the tips are tried and true.

1. Use your best voice. This is something I told my children when they were toddlers and were demanding something of me. "Your best voice" meant the voice you use when you want someone to help you, want someone to see things your way, see you as a reasonable human being rather than a screeching lunatic. This is the voice with which you convey, I want us to partner on this topic. In the old days, I would wait until I was enraged about something stepfamily-related until I spoke to my husband. By then, I was using the opposite of my best voice. I was using my screaming voice. This made my husband--who like most men experiences a remarkably fast rise in cortisol levels when stressed by marital communication gone awry--retreat. He would do so with a shake of his head and a muttered, "You're nuts." Which just made it worse. Seriously, use your best voice. It makes a huge, huge difference. And if you start the conversation when your irritation level is at 1 rather than 10, it will be easier, much much easier, not to yell! If you want help from your spouse, do not yell and do not scream, no matter what.

2. Start off with compliments and praise.  This is very hard to do when all you want to do is screech, "Did you really need to give your son another month's rent when he is 36 years old?!!! I AM SO SICK OF THIS BS!!!" But do you want to vent, or do you want to improve your partnership and change the dynamics in your relationship and have a better shot at helping your husband see it your way so he might just do it your way? I thought so. Start like this, then: "You are a wonderful dad. I know how important it is to you that you support your kids emotionally and are there for them. But I know you also want to do the right thing in our marriage, because you're a great husband too." After setting the tone--supportive, upbeat, intimating that he is going to hear a concern but not an accusation momentarily--ask for what you want. With the emphasis on ask. "I'm concerned about getting you and me on the same page, and also doing what is helpful for your son in the long term. I think we may actually be harming him when we pay his rent for him, because he's not learning to be independent. What do you think?" Now you're setting the terms for engagement: civil, equal. No one is an idiot (your husband, for giving a 36 year old rent money) and no one is a supplicant (you, begging him to stop being such an idiot). No one is a victim. You are two adults, having a civilized conversation and proving to yourselves and each other that Yes, it can be done. Model this and he will give it back to you. It may take time, but you can turn this thing around.

3. Use "I" versus "You" language. This one is so annoying. And yet, it works. I swear it does. "You are a pushover, and an enabler, and you don't know the first thing about parenting!" may be what you'd like to say in this conversation. But don't. No matter what, don't. Accusatory "you are, you do, you always, you never" language throws up a wall between you and your partner. Build a bridge instead, even if the hokey language makes you want to barf. "When you give your adult son money without discussing it with me first, it makes me feel disregarded and disempowered. It makes me feel you don't care about my feelings or my opinions. I know that's not true, but it makes me feel hurt and frustrated and sad. About you and me, and about our marriage. I don't want to feel hopeless." Now, here's the kicker-show him there is something he can do about it by asking, "Can you help me with this? Can we be a team and come to an agreement? I want to feel like we're in this together. I don't want to make you feel bad or criticize you, and I don't want to feel left out of decisions, either. What can we do?" Let him make a suggestion or two, after the initial shock of you not screaming wears off. Make a suggestion or two yourself. Oh, you are so smart and strategic!

4. Say "thank you" to build a culture of appreciation in your marriage or partnership.  A couples therapist advised me to do this and, predictably, I rolled my eyes. Then I tried it. And it worked.  When you thank your husband or partner for doing little things (putting the toilet seat down or making the bed comes to mind or, in my home, changing our youngest's diaper first thing in the morning, that dreaded chore) you're doing more than being polite. You're showing him that you notice his efforts, and appreciate them. And feeling appreciated can counterbalance the times he feels beleaguered and not-good-enough when it comes to dealing with stepfamily life ("I can't do anything right!") Being thanked also puts him in an appreciative and grateful mindset, increasing the likelihood that he will thank you for the things, little and big, that you do. Which will decrease your resentment. And saying thank you raises the bar in another fundamental way in  your marriage: every time you or he say "thanks, honey" you are demonstrating to yourselves and to each other that there is a fundamental decency that should prevail in your home and your relationship. Do it enough, and that decency will prevail even when you are both tempted to brawl over the tough topics that don't seem to improve or go away.

5. Remember, it's all about you two--you need a mantra. You could make yourself ill trying to please your husband's ex or his children of any age. But the truth is, if you are the easy target and the designated bad object in their story about the divorce and remarriage, you can't win them over with anything you do for them or say to them or cook for them or gift them. Change your focus to improving your overall life satisfaction, and your partnership or marriage. Stepfamily experts and psychotherapists including Susan Wisdom (author of Stepcoupling), Mary Kelly-Williams (www.marriedwithbaggage.com) and James Bray have written about the importance of the couple bond in a remarriage with children. In stepfamily situations, it is easy for the couple to get short shrift,in the rough and tumble of relations with kids and adult kids and unhappy exes who make trouble. Don't let it happen in your marriage. Put the emphasis on your own personal happiness and health, and the happiness and health of your partnership. I thought it was dorky beyond description when a therapist friend told me that my husband and I needed a mantra and gave us, "We're the team." But she was right. We did need a mantra to remind us that, come what may--and there is a lot of come what may in a remarriage with children, a lot of drama--the bond that would get us through was the one with each other. Ask your husband to help you come up with something you can say that bonds you together in moments of high stress. It could even be funny phrase or an inside joke--but what you need is a phrase ("We're the team"; "We can do this," whatever) that acts as a life raft for you both to climb up on when the waters get rough and you are in danger of capsizing.

6. Know the traps you fall into, and talk about them. "Uh-oh, we're doing that thing again. You know, where we escalate and escalate. Can we stop before it gets out of hand?" This is what a friend told me she said to her husband when they were arguing about his son coming for an unscheduled visit during her busiest work day of the week. I was impressed at her ability to step outside the argument while she was having it, to make an observation that was helpful and non-judgmental. Try it during your next argument. As the voices start to get raised, instead of yelling say, "I'm about to start yelling and I don't want to" or even "Wait, hold on, what is it that made us start yelling just now? Let's stop." He may respond, "I'm yelling because you're an infuriating idiot," but he won't continue in that vein for long if you model humor and civility. "Seriously, come on, help me with this."

Couples researcher John Gottman found that couples who make it long-term have a high praise to criticism ratio during fights (they say four to five nice things for every one nasty thing they say while arguing); use humor (can you laugh when your husband calls you a wicked stepmother? After all, it is absurd. Can you laugh when you accidentally spit while screaming? Can he? There are some hilarious moments during fights, and some opportunities to see the humor in it, and recognizing that can profoundly change the way your husband sees you); and always, always make repairs after (a hug and an apology, an "I hate it when we feel like enemies," and "I didn't mean it when I said you were stupid. I'm so sorry").

Couples with stepchildren and exes in the picture will fight. They will fight plenty. How could they not? What matters is not how often, but how. And what comes after. Try tips one through six, together or separately, with the conviction that you can change the dynamics in your marriage that frustrate you. And let me know what happens!