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The Hidden Keys to Marital Happiness


There is a disproportionate amount of information out there about how to make your marriage work: Finding books on how to improve your sex life is easy. On ways to nourish each other's soul - check. On issues of money management, child rearing, in-laws, growing old together, how to buy a house together - check, check and check again. The disproportionate aspect comes from the fact that there's precious little out there about conflict resolution - marriage counselors seem to have the corner on that market - and even less that positions it as perhaps the most critical make-or-break proposition in the viability, or as least the baseline level of happiness, of the marriage itself.

On the long and dark list of why marriages break up - adultery, growing apart, incompatibility, one of the parties joining a new age cult, etc. - rarely do you see "fighting fair" listed. But the fact is, how you resolve conflict, how you fight, can be - especially when done wrong - the context-setter for virtually every other aspect of the marriage, because this is where truth and misspoken truth commingle in a haze of emotion, allowing you to assign meaning while cementing what you've heard to memory. Arguing is the breeding ground of contempt and resentment, both of which inevitably and insidiously kill off the love in marriage over time. And because conflict in a marriage is a sure thing, every couple must negotiate the terms of how they handle those moments, which are usually complicated by emotions and past-resentments that cloud the truth of the matter.

Unfortunately, the sheer bulk of all the wonderful things that are thriving in your marriage have little to do with the potential for damage that exists in a marital no-holds-barred cage match. Even the happiest of couples - raging hormones, shared passions, lots of laughter, and an intense baseline context of love and commitment - can find their marriage in trouble if, for example, the husband resorts to physical violence when the couple argues, or the woman says things that leave scars long after the echoes of the words themselves have subsided. A single cell of cancer can shortly snuff the life from a perfectly healthy body, just as a single argument gone out of control can begin a sequence of resentments that nourish itself with future conflicts, and over time (because new conflicts are certain to arise) become a deadly cancer in a relationship.

Smart couples understand the inherent danger of conflict resolution and create ground rules and boundaries that are not rendered flexible under any circumstance. The goal is to be able to look your partner straight in the eye in the most intense heat of the moment of altercation and still say, "I love you, I want to honor your position, I'll listen to your side, I'll give it due consideration," even when things like, "I'm angry, you've hurt me, you owe me an apology, that was cruel and selfish," are also a valid part of the discussion. Nobody is saying you shouldn't argue. Just that you should take care to argue productively, rather than destructively. The idea isn't to water down the truth with platitudes and the hidden truth of your emotions. It is to manage those emotions so the focus is on the issues themselves and their ultimate resolution. Never fight to win or to punish, but rather, fight to express your feelings, resolve the issue, then forgive and move on.

Smart couples also understand that if their arguing modus operandi is fraught with pain and risks, they should not hesitate to avail themselves of the wisdom of a professional counselor. Because conflict will most certainly come, there is no control over that fact. But there is control over how you handle it, and the stakes are far bigger than you may realize in the moment. The acid test resides in the moment of your next disagreement or argument - if it seems as if an old argument has just resurrected itself, as if it was never resolved, then you are in trouble. But if the disagreement occurs in a vacuum, with no triangulation (the bringing in of unrelated resentments and faults) and no relationship to past arguments, then chances are you are fighting fair, and reasonably. And if you find yourselves arguing about the argument itself, about how the other person is "being" in the moment instead of the issue itself, then just stop right there and take note - you're already engaged in the recognition of the importance of how you fight, one that can save your marriage in the long run.


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