Fight right or split



"I didn't realize how bad things were between Glen and me until Ronny, my college roommate, came to spend a few days with us last month," says Polly, 34, the mother of Jared, 7, and Andrew, 4.

"Glen and I have been married for 10 years, and our marriage has always been, well, very verbal. We both come from families where the motto was 'get-it-out-in-the-open.' "

But when Ronny cornered her in the kitchen that weekend, and told her point-blank that her home felt like an armed camp, Polly realized that she'd been pretending too long.

"We've let things slide," she says sadly. "We argue about the stupidest things. It's like we're in some sort of crazy contest to prove who's the bigger jerk."

Polly admits she's no angel. Before she can catch herself, she often lets fly with some nasty zingers designed to deeply wound.

"Why am I so horrible?" she asks. "Glen isn't a bad person. He can be sweet, sensitive and a wonderful father. I don't know how we got ourselves into this cycle of anger. But my friend made me realize that the time to break it is now."

Glen, 46, who sells and manages real estate, is angry and puzzled. "Polly makes such a big deal out of everything, and she uses me as her punching bag. If I'm late for dinner because at the last minute I have to show an apartment, or if I don't agree with how she's handling Jared, she gives me a withering look like I'm a total jerk."

Mostly, though, Glen objects to the way Polly assumes she knows how he's feeling and why he's acting a certain way. "I hate it when she says, 'You don't care about the family,' or 'You're always thinking about yourself.' "

Glen doesn't think he deserves flunking grades in every area of the marriage, but he knows he can give as good as he gets. "I'm not the kind of guy who can let things roll off my back," he admits.

According to Glen's calculations, he and Polly now have more fights before breakfast than they did the whole time they were dating. "And I don't mean dignified discussion, either," he adds. "I'm surprised you haven't heard some of our shouting matches all the way over here."

High-conflict couple

"All couples fight, but some fight more often, and more venomously, than others," says Howard Markman, co-author of "We Can Work It Out: How to Solve Conflict, Save Your Marriage and Strengthen Your Love for Each Other" (Perigee). Indeed, many therapists believe that one of the key reasons marriages fail is because two people don't know how to handle their anger.

The first step is recognizing whether you and your partner are at risk. Do you replay the same basic arguments? Do you feel worse, not better, after a fight? Do trivial issues trigger battles as large as more important matters?

If so, study these strategies to keep fights under control, improve your ability to negotiate and -- more importantly -- begin to live as allies, not adversaries.

1. Hold your tongue. The hurtful comments and one-liners couples fling at each other in the heat of an argument cannot easily be erased or neutralized.

Though you may be steamed, remember what Mom used to say: If you can't say something nice (or non-accusatory), don't say anything at all. Rather than explode at your partner, write it down -- or call a trusted friend. This will help you get it out of your system.

At the same time, learn to recognize each other's signals that an argument is escalating into a fight so you can call a timeout. Many women are frustrated by this and think that their husbands are using it as an excuse to simply end the discussion. That's why both partners must agree to return to the discussion table.

2. Don't assume you know what your partner is thinking or feeling. Few things stir the pot of anger more than implying that you know a partner's true motivation. If you have a tendency to do this, phrase your comments in terms of how your spouse's action, or lack of action, makes you feel. Character assassination has no place in a healthy relationship.

3. Handle the small issues as they come up -- and deal with the underlying problems once you've both calmed down. For Polly and Glen, this meant not arguing about discipline in front of their son but discussing the issue later.

4. Use the "when you then I" formula. Though this seems silly at first, in time it will become natural.

Polly used it this way: "When you call at the last minute to say you won't be home for dinner, I feel sad and disappointed that we won't be able to share this time with our sons. It makes me think you don't care that much about family time."

Glen heard her feelings, rather than her attacks, and he has assured her that last-minute changes do not mean what she had interpreted them to mean.

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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