Compromises make arguing constructive


August 28, 1994|By From Ladies' Home Journal Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Anita and Harold are fighting so much that they're both convinced the only sane route is straight to a lawyer's office. "After almost six years, we have yet to resolve an argument so we both feel OK about it," says Anita, 38, the office manager of a large Midwestern hospital supply corporation. "And the one thing guaranteed to start a huge battle is how to discipline our three kids."

Anita is convinced she's doing a terrible job, and her husband only aggravates the situation: "Harold grew up in Europe," she reports, "and his idea of discipline is to criticize the kids or call them names. Or hit them." But the children aren't the only target: "Whenever I ask for help around the house, he criticizes me. He accuses me of being too disorganized to run a home, too indulgent of the children -- his list is endless." Just about everything is fuel for an argument, and Anita is worn out. "This is not a marriage," she says firmly, "at least not the kind of marriage I want to have."

Harold, 39, who runs his own insurance business, feels the same way. "I know we love each other, but we can't stop arguing," he says. The tension in the house is palpable, he reports, but Anita, he feels, must like it that way. "You should hear how her family talks to each other. The whole bunch of them yell. They think that by screaming their opinion, they clear the air. Why can't they talk in a civilized way?" he wants to know.

But what really infuriates Harold is the fact that Anita never really considers his point of view: "Believe me, how we handle the discipline -- or anything else, for that matter -- is never really up for discussion." Anita may ask for his advice -- usually the moment he walks in the door after a long day at work -- he says, but it's clear she intends to handle the situation her way. Rather than engage in a no-win argument, Harold would rather go to his den and read the newspaper. "Do you blame me?" he asks.

Fighting the good fight

"Every couple argues, but for Anita and Harold, their inability to resolve their differences is proving disastrous for their marriage," notes Dr. Antoinette Saunders, a clinical psychologist in Evanston, Ill. One of their biggest problems is that they don't know how to fight fair. This advice helped them argue constructively, so they could compromise and save their marriage.

* Stop trying to be right. In most arguments, each person is a little right and a little wrong. Anita's insistence that hers is the only way makes any further discussion moot.

* Schedule a time and place to resolve conflict. Timing is every thing. Though you may be bursting with frustration, bringing up discipline problems when your spouse is stressed from a day at the office or right before bed is not productive.

* Be clear and specific. Stay focused on the point you are trying to make. Be calm when you present your point of view. Anita may come from a family of yellers, but she will lose every battle with Harold if she doesn't tone down her style of disagreeing.

* Make suggestions for resolutions, brainstorm ideas and try one that seems to satisfy both of you. If that doesn't work, pick another.

* Call a timeout when either of you is so white-hot you will soon say or do something you regret, and remove yourself temporarily from the situation. You can say: "I'm feeling angry and I'm beginning to lose it. I want to take a timeout." Or: "I see you're very angry right now. Let's discuss this on the weekend." Set a definite time and place to continue the conversation.

* Don't insist on the last word. If you still feel you have to get one last word in, nothing has really been resolved.

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