The Best Way to Stop Marital Arguments Before They Happen

Keep this in mind when you sense an argument brewing.

by Jeff Ashworth
Originally Published: 

The walls of my living room are pink. Well, not pink, but salmon, maybe? The color is called Stolen Kiss. It’s a fine color, and quite striking when the sun streams through our apartment window. But it was not my first, third, or really 84th choice. That didn’t matter, because my wife and I had made a decision that rendered many other decisions out of our hands: we brought in a third party.

When it came time to decorate our first home as a married couple, a merging of our lives, a consolidation of our stuff, things went off the rails fairly quickly. I generally know what I like and know specifically what I don’t. But I couldn’t argue from a place of power about anything because what had sufficed as interior decoration in my last apartment was a mix of furniture and knick-knacks I’d either inherited or discovered on the street (“Yes, of course it’ll match. See? It has a bloodstain too!”).

I also don’t have the ability to walk in an empty room and envision its perfect form, a cozy, welcoming space with a wet bar and a comfy couch and accent colors popping off pillows and tchotchkes and those impossibly small plants you rarely have to water. My wife, a stylish, modern woman with a bent for nostalgia and a soft spot for anything purple, has clear ideas about what she likes. She just tends to like more than one thing, particularly when only one thing will do. And because a home for a family our size only needs one kitchen table; one bookcase; one headboard; I knew she’d agonize over every decision — which meant I’d be in agony right alongside her. It was immediately clear we were going to need backup.

On a lark, I placed a post on Craigslist explaining our situation (“Married Couple Seeks Interior Designer to Keep Us From Murdering Each Other”), and was pleasantly surprised at the number of incredibly helpful applicants, most of whom gave off no serial killer vibe whatsoever. We met with a few candidates who looked great on paper, but one in particular was so stellar in person she (thankfully) kept my wife from having to make another decision. We hired her on the spot.

She took individual input from both of us on things we liked and disliked then distilled them into a singular vision we couldn’t say no to. I mean, we could have said no, but we were paying her by the hour and weren’t flush enough to tell her to start from scratch. Among the things she helped us with, which is to say decided for us, included choosing paint colors (a nightmare), narrowing down options on big-ticket items (a night terror), and telling us where — and how high — to hang our pictures and paintings (a hellish fever dream from which there would otherwise have been no escape).

More than the gift of a beautiful, well-appointed apartment with pink walls, she gave us a common enemy. When my wife and I are forced to make what amounts to subjective decisions, we usually end up in a fight. Not because we want to hurt each other, but rather because we know we want different things but don’t have the ability to say so out loud. She doesn’t have the heart to tell me the personalized action figure I received as a parting gift from an old job doesn’t really jive with our planned motif.

I don’t have the heart to tell her the snow globe we received as an anniversary gift from her parents should probably only be on display at Christmas. Neither of us wants to look in the eyes of the person we love and say “With the exception of life partners, you have terrible taste.” Thankfully, we didn’t have to say these things to each other. We paid someone to say it for us. And she was great at it — kind, gentle, occasionally merciless.

In every marriage, there will be inevitable regressions into trench warfare. You may find that some arguments — whether over paint swatches, or monthly budgets, or the long-term goals you have as individuals and their relationship with the perceived goals you have as a couple — crop up continually because they’re never entirely resolved. They can’t be, really, because what you both truly want are different things. Some of these fights will be petty (and you will recognize them because of how bitterly they manifest themselves). Others are more broad, more connected to who you are in your soul, and as such, will have a monumental impact on your marriage.

But, truthfully, so will the petty ones. Kenny Rogers may have suggested knowing when to hold them, fold them, or walk away — but vows being what they are, walking away isn’t an option. But dammit, neither is folding because in this metaphor you’ve got a good hand.

Perhaps what you need is an entirely new dealer, with new rules and an hourly rate high enough to prevent you from pussyfooting around. An objective observer who can narrow down options, codify both of your positions, and make a reasoned decision on your behalf. This person could be a therapist, a priest, an interior designer. A friend. They can act as a mediator, helping you both leave the trenches and come to an equitable decision, or as a straw man you can set ablaze should a decision not go your way.

The key is knowing when to bring them in. For my wife and I, we know if we need to make a decision that we’ll have to live with for more than, say, a month, we’re going to ask for outside counsel, if only to have someone else to blame if shit goes bad (if I’d ended up hating Stolen Kiss, I’d rather be mad at an interior designer than my wife). Your needs, and results, may vary. Just remember that bringing in a third party is basically like flipping a coin you can have a conversation with. That you can argue with. That you can deify or demonize, depending on how things shake out. Chances are it’ll be a little of both.

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