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My husband, Thad, and I stand in the kitchen, nose to nose, straining to use our "inside" voices since the kids are in the next room. The issue? A dispute over the placement of knives in the dishwasher. (He's "blades up"; I'm "blades down.") In the heat of it, it's like we're Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell in Groundhog Day. We keep having the same fights a hundred different ways.
Sure, the details change -- knife placement, kid pickups, who's cooking dinner tonight -- but it's the same basic battle, again and again. And again. So, here we are, whispering angrily over a half-filled dishwasher.
"I call this 'gridlock conflict,'" says psychologist John Gottman, PhD, author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. "Each person's position on the issue is core to who they are. So compromising feels like selling out." To protect our egos, we dig in our heels. Deep. Our partner feels rejected. Gridlock ensues.
At least Thad and I aren't alone. This round-and-round sparring is so common in marriages that it accounts for 69 percent of marital conflicts, says Dr. Gottman. But how do we call a truce? Because, in full disclosure, the skirmishes over housework aren't our only gridlock fights. In fact, Thad and I have run-ins with four out of the five hot-button topics that Dr. Gottman identifies: housework, sex, money, in-laws, and parenting. (Thankfully, we've been spared in-law problems.)
"But resolving fights isn't really the issue," explains Gian Gonzaga, PhD, senior director of research and development at eHarmony. "It's how you manage your differences that counts. You need to learn to fight well." In other words, Thad and I have to figure out how to talk (not scream), to prevent (not instigate), and to accept (not be "right" all the time -- which is tough for someone like me, who's always right).
Armed with tips from experts in the field of All Things Marriage Related, I decide to attack our gridlock fights head-on. My goals? To find new combat strategies and, maybe, to resolve (or, at least, tenderize) a few of our chronic conflicts.The Housework Fight
The Battle: He works and cuts the grass. I work, take the kids to school, make lunches, supervise homework, arrange activities, plan and cook meals, manage money...shall I go on? I ask for help, suggesting that Thad make dinner once a week. The first week, I have to remind him. The second, he remembers, decides on taco salad but doesn't read the whole recipe. I step in to inform him that the meat mixture must chill overnight, the tortilla chips can't be added until the end and he needs a much bigger bowl. He flips. "If you won't let me do this myself, why should I do it at all?" I flip back. "I end up doing it anyway!"
The Subtext: Women tend to have higher standards for how the house should be run, says family therapist Joshua Coleman, PhD, author of The Lazy Husband. Why? "Because women pay a higher price socially." If a friend stops by and the house is a mess or a kid is always late to soccer practice, they almost never think, The husband/dad/man of the house doesn't have it together. "Women get the blame," Dr. Coleman explains, acknowledging that it's unfair. Meanwhile, men are more sensitive to being controlled.
The Fix: "Stop micromanaging," Dr. Coleman tells me. "If you ask him to do the dishes after dinner and he's reading the paper, you can't complain. It's still 'after dinner.' Give him a chance." For Thad, Dr. Gottman has this advice: "Take notes -- literally." That means that if I ask for help, he needs to write it down, word for word (as opposed to, say, my making a "Honey-Do" list and thrusting it at him). That way, expectations are clear and he doesn't forget.
The Upshot: Lists rule. Turns out, my 42-year-old husband welcomes the chance to be a little obsessive-compulsive. He forgets less and even jotted "Thad makes dinner" in every Sunday slot of our family calendar. Holding my tongue, however, is so shockingly difficult that I find myself actually biting it on a couple of occasions. On at least six more, I'm unable to control myself and -- boom! -- it's war. But when I just leave him alone and then, afterward, say, "thanks," The Housework Fight stops 100 percent of the time. Yes, 100 percent.
The Battle: He comes home with a new toaster, purchased at the grocery store (where it couldn't possibly cost more), because I mentioned ours "smells funny." Me: "Are you kidding? We don't need that -- and even if we did, haven't you heard of sales? You never think things through!" Him: "What's the big deal? It wasn't expensive." To me, he's reckless and impulsive. To him, I'm controlling and a penny-pincher.
The Subtext: "Money emerges as the biggest problem in divorce cases," says cultural historian Pamela Haag, author of Marriage Confidential. And let's be clear: There are money conflicts far more dire than ours. But the origins are the same: "All money sensitivities originate with the family you grew up in," says Bonnie Eaker Weil, PhD, coauthor of Make Up, Don't Break Up. Neither Thad nor I come from wealth, but my family balanced the checkbook to the penny and spent carefully and strategically. His lived paycheck to paycheck and always fretted about cash, which he swore he'd never do. So now he buys what he needs when he needs it, regardless of price. Yes, each of us knew this going in to our marriage and respected where the other was coming from. Still, our differences flare up nearly every time he shops.
The Fix: I try Dr. Gottman's tip to use a "softer start-up" to the fight -- no 0-to-60 yelling, no blazing guns, no accusations. So, instead of "Are you kidding?" I say, "I understand that you don't like to worry about this stuff, but I feel like we're spending money that we don't need to spend." Thad's fix is more practical: He agrees to discuss house/kid/life purchases with me before he pulls out his credit card. And I'll try not to freak when he buys underwear at Kohl's at full price even though there's a 30-percent-off coupon sitting on the kitchen counter.
The Upshot: Our agreement works best when he doesn't call me from Sam's Club, debating whether or not to buy a snowblower. Because, while it's easy to stop the character assassinations (I hadn't even realized I was being so mean), it is very tough to immediately access my kinder, gentler self during a random phone call about a wholly unnecessary purchase. Still, when we both do what we've promised, the money fights abate.
The Battle: Sex is at the top of Thad's to-do list, trumping food, shelter, and beer sampling. In a perfect world we'd get busy several times a week. When I beg off he hears a terrible -- and totally untrue -- message that I'm no longer attracted to him or don't love him. But sex is at the bottom of my (very long) to-do list, right below "schedule dental checkup." So when he suggests some pre-bed nooky after I've spent the day running around like the family's personal assistant, I snap, "You expect me to take care of everything and have sex?" (See: The Housework Fight.) He mumbles, "I was just asking," as he rolls over.
The Subtext: "The biggest predictor of marital satisfaction for men is how much sex they have," says Dr. Coleman. "But they don't do a good job of explaining how much it means to them." Typically, husbands think the sex itself does the talking (sex = intimacy = communication). Women don't talk "sex"; they talk "talk" (communication = intimacy = sex).
The Fix: Everyone has a particular language in which he or she expresses love, explains Gary Chapman, author of The 5 Love Languages. For a marriage to succeed, you have to be willing to speak your spouse's. For many of us women, that means we have to stop putting off sex and just do it. For men, it means setting aside Angry Birds and asking, "How was your day?" or "What's on your mind?" or, best of all, "How can I help?" (Dr. Gottman actually conducted studies that prove that the more housework a man does, the more interested his wife is in sex.)
The Upshot: While I appreciate the fact that Thad is turning off the TV more often in order to chat with me, the most effective aphrodisiac is when he pitches in. A few nights ago he packed the kids' backpacks without being asked and, just like that, I was revving -- and actually initiated sex. The more he does, it appears, the less stressed I feel and the higher sex moves on my to-do list.
The Battle: My husband reprimands our oldest daughter: "If you don't pick up those crayons, you'll never watch TV again." I immediately point out, in front of said child, that he has handled it wrong. (I'm the one who reads the parenting literature and I know you can't threaten a consequence you won't, in a million years, deliver on.) As usual, he snaps back that I "never" back him up and "always" criticize him for his mistakes in front of the kids.
The Subtext: "Moms do tend to have more basic knowledge about the latest disciplinary tactics than dads do, but the gap is smaller than parents think," says clinical psychologist Marsha Pruett, PhD, coauthor of Partnership Parenting. (I don't necessarily buy this but go along for the sake of harmony.) Growing up in different families simply means you have different models for parenting. Period. You start off on a different page. As a result, Dr. Pruett says, every couple has to "figure out how to get on the same one."
The Fix: The primary problem of our fight has to be addressed: I must stop taking him on in front of the kids. "Make an appointment to continue the discussion later and then set a timer for 10 minutes," says Dr. Eaker Weil. "The discussion should last no longer than that." Not only will our kids be spared our quarrel, but getting away from the heat of the moment can transform a clash into a conversation.
The Upshot: When we watch our middle child snub a girl on a playdate, I quickly say to my husband, "Let's talk later about how to handle this." I'm slightly irritated that in this instance, and in all that follow, I am the one who schedules the meeting. On the other hand, as Laurie Puhn, author of Fight Less, Love More, points out, "One person is always the communication leader in any given situation. That's just the way it is." My husband, for his part, takes the meetings seriously. He sometimes even brings his laptop so we can do research in case we can't agree or come up against a problem we don't know how to handle. What strategies, in the end, actually work to quash our fights? I discover that, no matter which fight it is, the simple in-the-moment advice is best: soft start-up, "I feel" statements, and holding my tongue. And the most unexpected change?
So. Much. More. Sex. Ultimately, one result is clear: We fight less. We don't disagree less -- he'll never think about money the way I do, and I'll never think about sex the way he does. (And I'm sorry, but "blades down" is safer; it just is.) But we're not yelling, freaking, huffing, and seething about those issues nearly as much as we used to. Our disputes have (mostly) evolved into discussions. And that makes our marriage feel less like "War" and more like "Peace."
Vicki Glembocki feels really bad for her husband -- not just because he's outnumbered 4 to 1 in their South Jersey household (their daughters are 7, 5, and 1), but also because of her habit of writing about the intimate details of their marriage.