Arguments That Kill Your Marriage
In a marriage there are good arguments and bad arguments. Some arguments are both necessary and helpful. An argument that settles an issue that has been an on-going source of tension is a good argument. If you’ve been arguing year after year about the post-Christmas VISA bill then an argument that resolves how much you’re going to spend on holiday gifts is a good argument. Likewise if you’ve been feeling slighted by the amount of attention that your spouse gives to his mother and the amount of influence she has over your decision making process as a family, then an argument that expresses that concern and that results in reasonable boundaries is a good argument.
But not every argument is a good argument. Some arguments are unhelpful and some arguments are downright deadly. In my experience the following 4 arguments should be avoided like the plague:
1. Arguments about arguments
Generally speaking, when you find yourself arguing about how you argue its time to seek pastoral or professional counsel. This is a bad road to go down.
“You always say that! Why can’t you just deal with your feelings instead of pushing everything back on me?”
“Here we go again. Bring on the waterworks! Shut down the process as soon as the argument starts going against you with a big cry-fest.”
“This is what you do every time! Instead of dealing with the issue I’m raising you bring up something completely irrelevant from 12 years ago. Enough! Deal with one issue at a time!”
Sound familiar? If these arguments aren’t shut down they will destroy the dialogue within your marriage.
Try having a conversation about the agreed upon rules for marital dialogue when you are not engaged in a particular conflict. When you are both in a good state of mind agree on some basic ground rules. You might consider the following:
a. One issue at a time. Let’s agree to try and resolve the current issue without dragging other issues in unless they are directly related.
b. Let’s agree that crying is permitted as long as its genuine and doesn’t get used to shut down a necessary conversation.
c. Let’s agree that not every argument has to be pressed toward an immediate resolution. Calling a pause is not stalling or running away. Some people simply process faster than others.
d. No name calling.
e. No threats. You can’t say “That’s it, I’m out of here”.
It might even be a good idea to write your rules down. Once they’re on paper than you shouldn’t need to rehash them every time. This can save you a great deal of emotional energy.
2. Arguments about feelings, reactions and responses
All people are entitled to instinctive and natural feelings and responses. In the Bible Job’s friends were critical of his response to the tragedy and hardship that he had experienced. Job replied:
"Does the wild donkey bray when he has grass, or the ox low over his fodder?" (Job 6:5 ESV)
Job’s point was that animals respond in certain ways to certain stimuli and human beings are no different. If you punch someone they will cry out, if you startle them they may jump; you can’t hold people accountable for instinctive responses.
This comes up more often then you might imagine in marriage. A wife might accuse her husband of being attracted to the waitress; the husband might accuse the wife of being disappointed that he didn’t get the promotion. These arguments can be devastating because they feel unjust to the person being questioned.
A man can’t help noticing an attractive woman. He was designed by God to have a biological interest in qualities related to fertility. In street level English, his eye inclines towards breasts and hips. That is instinctive and it is not immoral. To linger or to leer is immoral. To notice is simply human. A wife can engage her husband over flirtation or lingering glances but she should not accuse him of noticing or feeling attraction.
Likewise a man shouldn’t badger his wife over her feelings of insecurity if he is not doing well with his career. Most women are instinctive nesters and she will feel anxious until her husband has a steady job. He can engage with her over any nagging or negative comments but he should not engage her over her feelings or her initial reaction to any downturn in his employment status. People are entitled to instinctive responses.
Martin Luther said something helpful about the difference between reactions and settled thoughts. He said that you can’t keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair. Therefore, for the health of your marriage ignore the birds and only argue over nests.
3. Arguments about identity
Good arguments focus on actions and words. Bad arguments target identity and essence. In a good argument a wife might say to her husband: “When you didn’t stand up for me yesterday when your mother criticized my parenting style I was really upset. Why didn’t you step up and protect me?” In a bad argument the wife says: “Why are you so passive? Why can’t you act like a man? Why are you so scared of your mother?” Do you see the difference?
Arguments about identity are devastating because they communicate an essential dissatisfaction with the other person. It sounds like you are saying “I wish I wasn’t married to you. I don’t respect you. I want out.”
That’s a marriage killer.
People view their own actions and words from a bit of a distance. Only a complete ego-maniac thinks that all of their words and actions are above reproach. Most of us are aware that we frequently do and say dumb things and therefore it is far less stressful to speak about the things we’ve said or done than it is to speak about who we are. Most people can only feel safe when they know that they are loved and respected – even if some of their actions and words need immediate correction.
4. Arguments that never end
A good argument has an obvious end. If the argument is about how much money to spend at Christmas then the obvious end is when a number has been agreed upon. If the argument is about the husband’s failure to protect the wife from yesterday’s criticism from mom, then the end is when the husband apologizes and agrees to be more watchful at the next visit. A bad argument has no conceivable end.
There are two common varieties of the never-ending argument. The first variety is the “merry-go-round” argument. In this argument the stimulus is on-going but there is no chance for resolution because of underlying disagreement. A common example of this would relate to the discipline of children. Some couples never achieve consensus when it comes to discipline. One parent may have been an only child with a sweet disposition and therefore sees little need for time outs, assigned chores and occasional spankings. The other parent was raised in a large family and was a bit rebellious and has come to appreciate the occasional visit to the proverbial woodshed. They do not agree on the value of certain forms of discipline and therefore each time Johnny misbehaves the same old argument resurfaces with ever increasing hostility and a mounting sense of frustration on both sides. He is convinced that Johnny’s poor behavior is a result of her passivity and she is convinced that Johnny is absorbing the unresolved hostility of dad.
This cannot continue.
Couples need to take some time when Johnny isn’t misbehaving to agree upon some shared principles for discipline. Decide upon the rules and then agree to let them ride for a set period of time after which they can be reevaluated if need be.
The second type of never ending argument is the “infinite side track” argument. In this argument any time one individual feels threatened he or she introduces a side-track or a red herring. He wants to talk about ways to reduce the hydro bill and she says “Oh yeah? Well what about your $2000 golf clubs?” When he says that he needs them for work and that they were a one time expense, she says “I’ll turn off the lights and open the windows if you will take the bull by the horns and finally ask Mr. Green for a raise. Enough is enough!”
There are so many twists and turns in this argument that both parties decide it isn’t worth the bother. This is deadly and it quickly leads to a sense of defeatism. There is no point in talking about anything because the arguments never go anywhere.
Side tracking is generally a defense mechanism used by a person who feels rushed, overwhelmed and accused. Such a person usually does better with advance notice and a clearly defined agenda. If you tell a sidetracker “this weekend I’d like to spend some time strategizing with you about ways we could work together to reduce the hydro bill” you will likely avoid triggering all of their defenses.
All 4 of these bad arguments can do serious harm to an otherwise healthy relationship. The good news is that a marriage is a living thing. And like all living things if we stop doing what is harmful we should see healing, life and growth once again. If you’ve been engaging in any of these marriage killing arguments now is a great time to confess that and to extend grace and mercy to one another. Now is a great time to pray and to ask God for help in breaking free of these destructive patterns so as to speak life and health and blessing over one another once again.
Marriage is a gift. Guard it. Feed it. Grow it. Weed it.
For His glory and our everlasting good.