It happens in every marriage. Your spouse calls you out on something small and three minutes later you’re both shouting and slobbering about every infraction, minor and major, since the day you met (Can you please not throw the dishtowel in the sink? somehow evolves into you NEVER liked my dog!). These arguments are like trips to Ikea: you yell, you see a variety of different rooms, and, somehow, you lost four hours.
Why does it get to this point? “A small argument will spiral into something bigger if the friendship is dangerously low, if you looked at it like a bank account. And definitely if it’s bankrupt,” says Terry Klee, a leading couples therapist working in New York and Connecticut. “If it’s bankrupt, an argument will catch fire so much faster. It’s like dry grass. And, so the first step is prevention more than what you’d do if it happens.”
A lot of things can erode the friendship in a marriage, particularly those other humans you made together. Klee notes that having kids can be the first step in putting couples on shaky ground because they’re little cooing balls of stress. “Children obviously require resources, energy and attention,” says Klee, “so it takes it away from the friendship. People think that this is fine, and they have an inclination to put the child first before the partner. We all do it, and yet it’s really a slow drip in the ceiling that just breaks through.”
There are different levels in a marital spat, and each one has the potential to escalate to a full-on battle
Making time for each other is important, obviously, but considering that’s easier said than done, there’s another way: small gestures. Eye contact, holding hands, and taking a quick walk are all the kinds of things that can build equity in a marriage so that, when the inevitable disagreement springs up, the bank account is full enough to avoid a full-blown disaster.
“If you don’t ever allow that quiet time with a glass of wine or where you’re out on a walk or commuting together for one person to talk about something that’s weighing heavily on them, it stays in the belly,” says Klee. “And then, when there’s that sort of incidental disagreement, it just balloons and then the next thing you know you’re hearing about what a dreadful wife or husband you are and you don’t know where it came from.”
Now, letting the friendship erode is only one reason fights go nuclear in a matter of moments. Much like that weird toe-nail-thing your friend once had, marital debates can become inflamed when an underlying issue is left unaddressed. In a marriage, Klee says, there will always be sacrifices. Some on one side and some on the other. But if those sacrifices are not acknowledged, the seeds of trouble can be laid.
Much like that weird toe-nail-thing your friend once had, marital debates can become inflamed when an underlying issue is left unaddressed.
“A classic example is when I work with parents, they live somewhere because one of the parents wanted to be near family,” she says. “And maybe the partner’s dream was that they were always going to move out West. But they didn’t and now they’re stuck here in a very expensive area and if they can’t occasionally talk about that as a wish or a regret it becomes a resentment instead. Both partners have to be open to saying, ‘Yeah, this really sucks for you and thank you. I can see how this is not what you wanted in life. Thanks for doing this for me and the kids.’ But we never thank our partners.”
Klee adds that there are different levels in a marital spat, and each one has the potential to escalate to a full-on battle. “The first bomb you can throw, which is more like a slingshot, is that you judge or comment on their behavior,” she says. “‘You didn’t take the garbage out.’ Believe it or not, that’s starting a fight.”
The second level, where you’ve gone from a slingshot to a bullet, is where you comment, critique, or judge their feelings. Judging feelings, says Klee, can lead to a sense of being unappreciated or inadequate, which can escalate the conflict in a heartbeat.
The third level is when you try and judge your partner’s motivation, grafting larger reasons for their actions that might not exist. Saying things like, “You didn’t take out the garbage because you’re just hoping I’ll do it”
From there, it can only go to what Klee calls the “atomic level.” “The atomic level is character assassination,” she says. “It’s no longer about their feelings or their behaviors or why you think they’re doing what they’re doing. It’s just attacking the overall person. ‘Why do you have to be such a loser?‘ And by the time some people come in and see me, they’re at that atomic level. Where they just have a disgust for their partner.”
Judging feelings, says Klee, can lead to a sense of being unappreciated or inadequate, which can escalate the conflict in a heartbeat.
Before reaching that atomic level, Klee says, both partners should ask themselves some key questions. If your spouse not taking out the garbage sends you into a rage, ask yourself why. “The point is, what did the garbage represent?” she says. “Do you feel overworked yourself? Because then that should come out as a wish or a regret: ‘I’m feeling overworked. I’m really feeling stressed out with day-to-day life.‘ We have to be more aware of why the garbage is bugging us. There’s a deeper core thing going on in us that has to do with feeling lovable, capable, and belonging. And that’s why we gripe about our partner’s feelings or behaviors.”
To snuff out potential blowups in a marriage, Klee recommends a “soft startup,” easing into a discussion rather than coming at your partner with everything in your arsenal. Starting off conversations with harsh phrases like, “Hey, you know what?” or the oft-used “We need to talk” can be a pathway to disaster. “The minute a woman says, ‘We need to talk,’ forget about it,” says Klee. “The guy’s already looking for an exit or he’s withdrawing or he’s got his own monologue in his head.”
The most important thing to remember is that a fight, no matter what, is a part of marriage. And if you have the tools to navigate them, you’ll not only fight less but, when you do fight, you’ll fight more successfully. “Fights are inevitable. Fights are definitely going to happen. According to [relationship therapy pioneer] John Gottman’s research, you’re doing really well if, 60 percent of the time, you are in sync with your partner. I think you have better odds in baseball.”