Q: Recently a coaching client made a comment about his marriage. At 45, he’s at the height of his investment banker career, earns a good salary and has been married to his wife for 22 years. His wife is the owner of a successful PR firm that boasts of clients worldwide.
He detailed that lately he and his wife seemed to be arguing all the time. “We seem to irritate and contradict each other a lot. We seem to bicker over household stuff, like who’s going to stay home to meet the repair guy because we’re both so swamped at work. Or why she made plans when I thought we were having a date night. Nothing big.”
But then he added: “She misinterprets everything I say. I try to hear what she has to say, but it isn’t working.” He also expressed that he felt she was more critical of him than he was of her. He asked worriedly, “Is our marriage in trouble?”
A:One study of long-married couples shows that “the real block to happiness and marital success isn’t the amount of conflict; it’s the ratio of positive to negative experiences.” One author has cited that “positive times need to outweigh the negatives by a factor of about 5:1.”
I explained to my colleague that he and his wife had fallen into a communication rut. By first paying attention to how they were speaking to each other, they could pull themselves out.
What is “normal” arguing?
Studies have shown that partners who communicate poorly with each other become very dissatisfied and unhappy in their relationships. While arguing is normal, what’s important is how these disagreements are handled. We don’t always realize the message we’re sending is not the one they’re hearing. First, there may be a disconnect between our words and our actions (e.g., saying everything is “okay,” but giving an angry or disapproving look).
Second, we may have trouble articulating exactly what we mean. My client had said ‘Let’s go out for dinner tonight’ and his wife became angry because she inferred that he was attacking her cooking. In reality, he was just trying to ask her out on a date.
Tips for Successful Communication
Be clear and direct. Using the dinner date example: He could have invited her to dinner and added that he thought it would be romantic to have a night out together.
“Check it out” to your partner. One way to avoid conflicts is checking out what you just heard your partner say by paraphrasing back to them. This gives your partner a chance to agree that this is what she actually meant — or to clarify it.
Be specific when disagreeing. Couples often take one disagreement and it spirals to other issues that have been building. Resolve the one issue and then go to the next one.
Really listen and validate. One main reason irritations lead to fights is because of frustration: One or both people feel unheard.
Stay calm and polite. If things get really tense, take a break but promise to return to the conversation later — and then make sure you do.
Lisa Webb is at the Body & Mind Consulting Associates Group: www.bodymindtn.com Her latest book: “Boardroom to Bedroom, Using your Executive Success for your Marriage” is available at www.amazon.com