I’ve been married for over 17 years, and man have I gotten better at fighting.
I win most of the time, but let me explain what that has come to mean for me.
When my wife and I first got married, and for the next 8 years or so, we lived under a mountain of tension, hurt feelings, and heated arguments. Most of the time, our quarrels would end in whoever didn’t get the last word giving in and walking away. We’d give it a couple of days or so, then act like nothing happened.
We rarely resolved anything.
Most of the people/couples I’ve mentored over the years are living the same way. The only thing fighting does is add hurt to the mounting cache of hurt-piles that will ultimately become too much to bear. Each argument is a step closer to the end.
Sometime in my mid-forties, I made a discovery that changed my life: when I get angry in an argument, 99% of the time it has nothing to do with the thing we’re arguing about.
Most of the time, I get pissed at my wife because she’s not listening to me. If we’re fighting, and I recount things from my perspective, and get shut down with a dialogue about how her perspective is better, I go through the roof.
And I’m not alone.
Most of us struggle here. When we have a perspective, when we want someone to know they’ve done something wrong, and they quickly, and with great volume respond with all the different ways we’re wrong, we won’t get mad because they’re accusing of us of being wrong, or because they’re not changing their ways – we’ll get upset because they’re not listening to us.
In the moment, most of us don’t know this is happening. We feel the anger, but we don’t know why it’s there. We just know we’re angry, so we fire back.
But the problem isn’t anger, it’s something few people admit to. It’s so painful to accept that we rarely admit it to ourselves.
Here’s the crux of the issue (I know it sounds cocky to say “I’ve got this all figured out,” but I’ve seen it too many times in my relationships and in the relationships of others): when someone blows us off, especially in the middle of a fight, we feel hurt. And nobody wants to admit it, especially in the middle of a fight. Telling someone “you hurt my feelings” feels weak and immature, so we charge ahead with no clue about what’s really going on.
Men are especially horrible about this. We’ve all but cornered the market on being clueless about our feelings.
99% of the time, our anger is merely a symptom of the hurt that’s going on inside. Angry at your spouse? Is it an ongoing anger that seems to hover over you all day long? If I were to coach you through it, I’d skip over the angry parts and look for the places you’re feeling hurt. And I’d bet there would be a mountain of them.
I’d also bet that during your arguments you’re not getting listened to.
One of the deepest ways we hurt each other is to refuse to give our spouses/friends/kids/parents/significant others a voice. When we ignore their point of view, we send a subtle, very powerful message that we don’t give a rat’s ass about them. We don’t just send the message that their opinion sucks, we send the message that they suck.
We don’t intend to send that message, and we certainly don’t feel that way about them, but that’s how we come across when we refuse to listen, especially in the sensitive, deeply personal, emotionally heated moments that characterize most arguments.
I’ve started trying to listen more, not just because my wife is super smart and usually has something I need to listen to, but because she needs to know how much I care. She needs to have a voice in these arguments and I’m the only one that can give it to her.
I’ve also begun to learn the art of tabling my opinion for later. At times I can muster the maturity to listen, repeat back what she’s said to make sure I’ve understood her, then think about things for a bit. I ask myself – do I need to push my agenda? Do I need to talk to some people about this first; get some other perspectives?
There’s nothing forcing me to push my point of view in the heated moments. I can honor my own perspective while tabling it for a bit. But for so many of our married years I saw it as a grave injustice if I didn’t voice my concerns as quickly as possible.
Our emotions get under control, real quick, when my wife feels listened to, and vice versa. Our fights don’t last nearly as long as they used to, mainly because we’re not hurting each other during our fights like we used to.
Now, I win fights all the time. I don’t always get my way, or convince my wife to embrace whatever superior wisdom I might be layin’ down, but we’ve managed to resolve a mountain of issues in our marriage. We haven’t resolved every single ounce of hurt, but our house isn’t built out of it.
And core to whatever success we’ve managed is our growing desire and ability to listen to each other, even when we don’t want to.