A Fair Fight

Posted by Beth Darling on Nov 2nd 2023

A Fair Fight

Dear Beth,

My wife and I have been married for almost 5 years and we don’t have kids. Instead of getting easier, it’s getting harder. We fight more than ever before and I can’t take much more because when we argue, it gets ugly quickly.

The only way I can keep things from getting worse is by leaving, even though I know it makes her even angrier. We still love each other and want to make this work but she wants to have kids now and I don’t think that’s a good idea given how much time we spend fighting.

Do you have any advice for us?


Hi, Dale,

First off, I’m so glad that y’all can both still feel the love for each other despite the hard times. That says a lot about you and your relationship. Of course, I get that it’s hard to focus on the good stuff when things are so volatile. Here's a silver lining: conflicts, when approached the right way, can lead to growth. Seriously.

It also might help y’all to realize that Dr. John Gottman, who’s probably the world’s foremost researcher when it comes to relationships, discovered that nearly 69% of problems in relationships aren't really solvable. Even in happy relationships! Isn’t that amazing? So, it's not about 'fixing' everything but learning how to deal with your issues in a way that doesn’t destroy your love, affection and respect.

Dr. Gottman also discovered that it’s not fighting that kills marriages, it’s how we fight. In fact, he’s even pinpointed the leading indicator of a pending divorce. He calls them the “Four Horsemen”:

  1. criticism
  2. contempt
  3. defensiveness
  4. stonewalling

Sounds intense, right? But the good news is that once you know how to spot them, you can tackle them head-on. So my suggestion to you and your wife is that you take some time to focus on how you fight, and commit to avoiding the following:

1. **Criticism:** It’s important to focus on the behavior, not the person. Be specific rather than using generalities or prior history to inflame the situation. Criticism can often be recognized because it includes broad statements such as “never”, “always”, “constantly”. Also, instead of blaming or shaming the other while trying to prove why they are “wrong”, simply share your feelings about something. For example, instead of saying, "You never listen!" try, "I felt overlooked when you didn't hear me out earlier."

2. **Contempt:** This is when criticism gets a bit nastier and attacks the person instead of simply their behavior. It’s often accompanied by eye rolling, sarcasm, head shaking, or includes words like “I can’t believe”, “no one would ever”, “that’s ridiculous”... The trick here is to stay focused on the matter at hand and remember the good stuff about each other. Being respectful is key.

3. **Defensiveness:** We've all been there, it's natural to feel attacked when someone is disappointed with or angry at us. And it’s natural to want to defend yourself. But, try to remember that you’re on the same team! So, you don’t have to agree, but understanding their perspective can be a great way to prevent escalation. Most importantly, remind yourself that there is rarely a “right” and “wrong”. It’s much more likely that there are different perspectives and each can be valid even when they are at odds with each other. It can also help to remind yourself why you chose your partner in the first place. They must have some great qualities or you wouldn’t be with them. Acknowledging these to yourself and them with gratitude and appreciation can work wonders. When you feel frustrated, think of a few things you genuinely admire about your partner and repeat them like a mantra.

4. **Stonewalling:** Ever just shut down during an argument? Ignore your partner? Or pretend not to hear something? That's stonewalling. If you can’t deal with responding, call a timeout to take a breather and come back when you're both ready to chat. (It usually takes a body 20+ minutes to recover from the flood of chemicals caused by extreme stress.) I suggest that you create a standing agreement that if either of you calls a time out (I use the term Code Red), you’ll return to the discussion in no less than 2 hours, nor more than 24 hours. And then, make sure you do come back to it. So please, give yourselves a break and remember disagreements are natural. The goal isn't to avoid them, but to face them in a way that's constructive. It's all about understanding and empathy. Try to focus only on the matter at hand, strive to see the world from your partner's eyes during disagreements and seek resolutions that work for your “team” as a whole.

It takes practice, but by being aware of these Four Horsemen and actively working to keep them at bay, your bond can only grow stronger. And I think you’ll find that the act of moving through some issues without major damage will actually bond you and lead to a natural decrease in confrontations.

Wishing y’all patience, commitment and open hearts as you move forward together towards a more joyful marriage,

Big hugs and love,

Beth Darling