The Anatomy of an Argument

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Imagine the following scenario:

You are a one woman wonder that has cleaned the house, folded laundry, and managed to whip up a healthy dinner for your family, all the while taking care of your children ages 3, 5, and 8.  After dinner, your husband sits down to unwind by watching the latest Sports Center.  You are absolutely exhausted and running through a mental list of what still needs to get done that night: a sink full of dirty dishes, walks for the dogs, baths for the kids, and Susie’s science homework.  You politely call into the next room, “Honey, would you mind helping out by looking over Susie’s homework?  It should just take a second….”  He mumbles back “Sure, in a minute.”

15 minutes later: you are still drying dishes and your hubby is still firmly planted on the couch completely engrossed in the latest football replay.  In the meantime, you can hear your two youngest children in the other room fighting over a toy and your oldest daughter has just told you that she needs to find a birthday present for one of her friends… by tomorrow!  By this time, you are feeling completely unsupported and ready to let off a little steam!

Do any elements of this story sound familiar?  Can you imagine the argument that might have blown up for this couple struggling to get their children’s needs met, as well as their own?

What’s a gal to do when she is stressed, tired, and clearly feels like she is in the right?

Marriage is wonderful, crazy, fun, and sometimes incredibly difficult.  Learning to “fight fair” is one of the most challenging skills that a couple can master.

Here are a few strategies that have been particularly helpful in managing arguments in my own marriage:

1.  Focus on your feelings and your responsibility in the situation.

When you are angry and stressed, it is incredibly easy to start out your sentences with “You did… such and such…” or “How could you….”  Leading with this language will probably put your spouse immediately on the defensive.  Instead, try to focus your energy on how the situation made you feel and communicate with “I” statements.

Here’s another tricky reality: you can only control you.  You can’t control your spouse.  If you want something to be different in the future, look at your own actions first.  Regardless of who is “right” or how “unfair” the situation appears, how can you facilitate change for the better?

2.  Practice listening.  If something catches you off guard, repeat back to your spouse what you think they said.

In the heat of the moment, it is easy to say something that can easily be misinterpreted.  If you are taken back by a hurtful comment, ask your spouse the following: “I hear you saying… XYZ…. is that correct?”  Communication is always easier when you are both operating from the same page.

3.  Take a break when needed.

Are there any How I Met Your Mother fans reading this post?  On Episode 22 of the first season, Marshall and Lily have a huge argument related to their upcoming wedding and decide to implement a “pause” break where they temporarily put their argument on hold.  All joking aside, what a stroke of genius in certain situations!  Sometimes, allowing each other time to cool down, regroup, and attend to other pressing matters is just the ticket.  Here’s the key: you both make it a priority to address each other’s feelings as soon as possible.  If the issue is simply dropped, be prepared to navigate the murky waters of resentment.

4. Stay in the present moment.

I recently heard someone say, “I’ve adopted the motto that it’s ok to look back at the past, but not to stare” in regard to coping with a difficult situation.  I think this mantra applies to relationship baggage, as well.  For many, anger tends to prime memories of prior negative experiences.  Instead of being upset over what happened 5 minutes ago, it’s easy for anger to quickly snowball into the 2,563 reasons why you’ve ever been annoyed with your spouse.  It’s also tempting to throw out the terms, “You never…” or “You always….”  Close the floodgates by focusing your attention and emotion on the present moment.

5. Practice reconnecting.

Learn what comforts your spouse when they are angry or upset.  James knows, for instance, that reaching out to hold my hand during a disagreement is a very reassuring gesture.  These small forms of connection can help soothe intense moments.  If it’s possible, try a little humor too.  Laughter works wonders in diffusing tension.

Common sense, right?  Easier said than done?  Definitely!  You might want to also check out Mary Lou Green’s awesome cooking metaphor for more ideas on when to speak up in your marriage and when to let things “simmer.”

These tips have served me well throughout my marriage.  We would LOVE to hear from you what works well in your relationship.  Leave a comment below to share how you will choose to “fight fair” and lovingly during your next argument.


I married my college sweetheart and am a mama to 2 adorable Shih-Tzu puppies. I have a passion for making handmade cards, discovering new recipes, and savoring travel adventures abroad.

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