The Art of Picking Your Battles In Marriage

Understanding what to bring up — and when — is as important as understanding what to let go.

Pick your battles. Choose your battles wisely. However spoken, this is solid advice. It keeps you in line and out of confrontations with your spouse, a coworker, a family member — whomever. The point is clear: Be selective. Don’t waste your time on energy on every, minor irksome issue. But there’s also another implicit message that comes along with it: Not now. Not this one. Let it go.

But a common problem to face is that you decide to let this one go, and the next one, and the next one until, eventually, you let everything go. Few people relish confrontation. We avoid pain, and just the idea of raising a concern and potentially burning a bridge or getting counterattacked amps up the stress in the mind and body.

It’s understandable to want to ignore an issue and pretend nothing is wrong, but if something is wrong it won’t suddenly self-correct. Total avoidance get us no where. As Yael Schonbrun, a psychologist in Newton, Massachusetts, says, “Nothing productive happens when no action is taken,”

It’s not just that the problem remains. It’s that you get resentful, and the relationship devolves as you pull back more and more. “It’s something that will eat at you,” says Ryan Howes, clinical psychologist in Pasadena, California.

Eventually, you have to pick an actual battle and then go into said battle. While it sounds contentious, it doesn’t need to be or should be. It’s about assessing each situation and making the ensuing conversation collaborative. The discomfort won’t melt away, but you have a better chance of making the situation not only right but also better. Here’s what to know.

Understanding What Battles Are Worth Picking

You have many possible battle topics, but deciding on what’s worth pursuing doesn’t have to be overly complicated, Howes says. Simply put, it’s what’s been bugging you. If you’re having fights in your head and a night’s sleep doesn’t make them stop, that’s a damn good indicator. Same goes for if you keep ruminating, even for short periods. The words need to come out, and they will. It can be as a conversation or a burst. Your choice, and it’s not hard to see which is healthier for a relationship.

The worry, then, becomes how and when to bring it up. There’s no best moment, particularly since parents have little-to-no “any time”, but there is a wrong one, namely when you’re seething. Schonbrun says that anger is usually the driving force, and, as Howes adds, when you let it control the conversation, “You’ll say some shit you’ll regret.”

Schonbrun suggests talking to a friend in order to get perspective or just to offload some heat. Writing things down can help as well. The words leave your head and seeing them on the page can give you distance from them, and the act of writing can give your rant story-like structure.

Staying curious is another way, Howes says. It can help to answer, “Why might this be happening?,” and the possibilities could be that the other person is overworked, worried or tired. Or the reason could be less benign, but entertaining benefits of the doubt invites in empathy and makes things less adversarial.

The Art of Confrontation

Before you say anything, one avenue that prevent tension from even building is establishing a regularly scheduled time to talk. Howes calls it “gripe hours”, where you get to ask, “Anyone have any problems?” Once a week is ideal, but Schonbrun says for parents twice a month might be more realistic. Whatever the schedule, there’s no need to worry about mustering up courage. The time is set. You can bookmark the problem and go about your day, Howes says.

But if you don’t have that check-in time and have to raise the issue, start by asking, “Do you have the bandwidth for a conversation?,” Schonbrun says. If the answer is “no”, it’s on that person to pick a better time, but a “yes” means buy-in and no one feels trapped in an unwanted discussion.

After that, if you’re unsure, lead with “I don’t know how to do this … This isn’t comfortable,” followed by, “I find myself getting upset about (insert issue).” It’s hard for the other person to get defensive when you offer vulnerability and you’re talking about yourself, Howes says.

It’s even harder when you immediately accept your responsibility with, “I know that I don’t …” As Howes say, it gets you out of the “I’m right. You’re wrong” mindset, and Schonbrun adds that it further helps to find a mutual goal to attack rather than focus on a problem that needs to be eliminated.

As for how long the battle should go, a lot of it is how much time you actually have, but if a point gets repeated two or three times, you can say, “Maybe we can revisit this later” or “Let’s figure out a solution.” Either way, you want to move to a closure, because, “You can rehash forever,” Howes says.

The challenge can be going back into your relationship, especially if things weren’t fully resolved. You can try planning something enjoyable afterwards, even if it’s just lunch, or merely agree that each of you will get some decompression time. One thing that can help during a “fight” is to drop in, “I’m here. I love you. I’m not going anywhere.”

People fear that harsh words mean rejection and that life is blowing up, so it’s a reassurance to your partner and a reminder that, “It’s not World War III,” Howes says. “It’s just a little battle.”

Oh, and Remember: You’re Not Special

The presence of an issue itself can be a problem, which stymies any action. You worry that it signifies something deeper about the relationship or that because you can’t immediately handle something/let it go, “There’s a strength flaw in me,” Howes says.

Stoicism gets a lot of hype, but it doesn’t allow for much sharing, and the reality is that conflict is part of the family. That’s not bad. It reflects different opinions, tastes, backgrounds and that can lead to expanded views, more balance and more growth. To get there, you’re going to bump into each other and disagree.

“No couples get to avoid that,” says Schonbrun, adding that there’s a valid reason why. “We don’t marry ourselves.”