Growing up, the only thing I knew about being married came from the movies. This included a lot of romantic letter-writing and jumping-into-each-other’s-arms French kissing scenes. It also included passionate plate-smashing arguments. You can imagine that I’ve been sorely disappointed in some of my relationships.I come from a family of divorce. My parents, who remained friends throughout my life, split when I was just 4 years old. And while they both provided loving homes, I never understood what a healthy marriage should look like. Because of this, I didn’t know how to fight fairly.
Art Markman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Texas and author of Smart Change, tells SELF that children observe a lot about adult interactions from the relationship between their parents, as well as the relationship that parents have with them and with siblings. “In addition, children may have a chance to observe their parents interacting with other adults,” he adds. I learned about adult interactions from Reality Bites.My first real fight with my high-school boyfriend was plagiarized. He hurt my feelings, and after watching my favorite movie for the zillionth time, I rewound a particularly heated scene between Troy and Lelaina and wrote down the most powerful words to break my boyfriend’s heart. It failed miserably.
Fast forward to my now-husband who was born with the emotional maturity of a 75-year-old man. He took me to the nicest restaurant in our hometown for our first date and opened the car door for me and ordered wine like a grown up. My previous boyfriend had taken me to McDonald’s before a homecoming dance, so this felt very adult.Along with this maturity came a reasonable response to real-life arguments. Like someone opening my car door, I was not prepared. Where was the passionate plate-smashing? Where was the screaming match? Wasn’t one of us supposed to zoom off and cry in an abandoned parking lot?Markman says that it’s important for couples to learn that you can be angry with each other and work past it. “This can be particularly difficult for children of divorce who may always be wondering whether a particular fight is the one that will lead to a downward spiral that ultimately ends the relationship.
” It’s true: I assumed that every argument would have some dramatic ending. I certainly didn’t understand that a disagreement could be respectful and even productive.But I knew that if I wanted this relationship to work, I had to learn to fight fairly.Markman says that learning to disagree respectfully might be more difficult for those without role models (that don’t come from Netflix). “One of the things that family therapists spend a lot of time talking about is how to state feelings rather than making accusations when fighting. That strategy is valuable for making discussions and arguments productive.”For me, it meant learning to use “I” statements rather than “You” accusations. It also meant that I had to learn to say, “I’m sorry,” which happened to be another one of my major downfalls when it came to having a disagreement.
As in, I just didn’t do it. The only thing I knew about arguments is that you were supposed to win them and saying you’re sorry meant that I was the loser.Markman says that, like me, some people do have trouble apologizing. “For these individuals, it’s really helpful to learn to apologize, because it helps their partner to feel like their concern is understood and that there was something valid in what they were feeling. By apologizing, you give you and your partner a chance to move forward rather than staying stuck in the moment that created the rift.”Unfortunately, this went on longer than I’d like to admit—at least a couple of years—with my now-husband doing most of the apologizing. (WHY DID HE MARRY ME?!) Markman explains that some people take responsibility for their partner’s feelings and not just their own actions. “If you find that you are always apologizing and your partner never is, then it is important to have a discussion about ensuring that both of you are willing to take responsibility for your own actions.”And when I did apologize—like really, truly apologize—it felt so good.
This sincere action opened the doors to better communication and OMG THE FEELINGS. Honestly, I hate that I waited so long to do this, but I’m thankful that I had a patient partner and over the years, I’m proud to say that I’ve learned to fight fairly, or rather, disagree, and that it never feels like losing when I apologize.Am I perfect now? No, but arguments feel productive. I choose my battles, too, which Markman says is important. “Every couple has differences in priorities and values that they need to discuss. In addition, every relationship has moments in which one person does something that bothers the other and while it’s not necessary (or even healthy) to point out every small foible, it’s important for people to talk about the things that really bother them.” So I may give in and say, “Fine, wear the T-shirt with pit stains,” but calmly communicate that I’m bothered if he’s texting while we’re having coffee, or whatever feels important at the time. And I think he does the same.Markman goes on to say that occasionally disagreeing is, in fact, healthy. “Couples who never fight are often couples that are avoiding confrontation, rather than being perfectly aligned.” Whew! Now, about those pit stains.