As soon as I spit the words out, I wished I could take them back. The look on Kara’s face let me know that I had crossed a line, and that our argument had just gone from a simple disagreement to something hurtful.
Kara wasn’t feeling appreciated, and she felt frustrated that I wanted to work out after I got home from work. She was with the kids all day and needed a break. But it had been a long day for me as well and running is a stress reliever for me. In my mind, getting to spend some time on the treadmill would actually help me to be more present to my family once I was done. We’ve had this argument dozens of times; at that moment I was more interested in my response than in Kara’s feelings. I had flung this comment out to provide context, to better argue my case, but I hit a nerve—I had wounded my wife and I felt terrible.
Kara and I work hard to argue well, to make sure that our disagreements help foster intimacy instead of taking away from it. It might sound odd to hear of arguments helping a couple grow closer together, but I think when done well that’s exactly what they do. Arguments are opportunities to look closely at a place of disagreement, hopefully with the goal of seeing things as the other person sees them, to grow in empathy and understanding. And when that is achieved, couples can walk away from arguments feeling better about their relationship, not worse.
There are a few rules Kara and I try to follow in the way we argue, but the most important is that there will never be room for contempt, which marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman calls “the sulfuric acid of love”. Contemptuous statements are ones that belittle your significant other, making yourself sound superior. While a legitimate complaint might be phrased, “It makes me feel unappreciated when you leave your clothes in a room I just cleaned” a contemptuous remark would be “you’re too lazy to clean up after yourself!” The first statement expresses a concern that can be addressed together, while the second statement is meant to wound.
Contempt is a sign of competition in an argument. It’s no longer about the two facing a problem together; it’s become about scoring points against the other. Kara and I don’t always see eye to eye, but we do know that we’re in this together, and so we always try our best to avoid competition, even in the midst of confrontation. We’re certainly not perfect, but we’ve both made fighting fair a priority, and that’s led to arguments that help us grow in love!
What about you, are there any rules that have served you well in your arguments?