“Do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forth, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, honor, and cherish, til death do you part?…”
“Wait, I wasn’t finished. And do you promise to fight fair with him on the countless occasions you two will disagree?”
I completely understand why the last bit isn’t included in ye olde standard wedding vows, white-laced and scattered with rose petals. Who wants to think of arguments on their big day? And doesn’t marriage mean getting along every moment of your blissful existence together anyway?
All couples fight. (Sorry, newly engaged girls. It’s true.) Billy Graham’s wife, Ruth, loved the saying, “Where two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary.” If you put multiple humans in close enough proximity for a long enough duration, conflict happens. Whether you publicly pledge to fight fair or not, the time will come when some basic sparring etiquette will help protect your marriage from harm.
Here are the ground rules:
- Set your own ground rules. Because stories and personalities vary so widely, no cookie cutter set of boundaries will serve every relationship equally. Consider who you are and who you’re married to, and go from there. For instance, Riley and I have a “no arguing after the lights are off” rule that you might find impractical, along with “no touching during conflict,” “no leaving the room without agreeing to take a time-out,” and “no using the ‘d word’ (divorce).” Sit down together when things are calm and hammer out your marriage’s unique list of musts and won’ts. Then do something fun to celebrate.
- Guard the first three minutes. Interestingly, research has shown that the initial 180 seconds of an argument reflect the overall health of a couple.* If you can make the most of those first three minutes, the positive impact on your relationship will be huge.
- Listen well. Only half of communication involves getting your point across; the other half is understanding your “better half.” Once you redefine winning from getting your way to making the other person feel understood, the tone of your conflicts will drastically change. Ask questions, reject defensiveness, and practice empathy. Scripture is full of wisdom about listening. Choose a few verses to memorize as a couple—James 1:19 is our favorite.
- Perfect the art of compromise. When Riley and I need to figure out how to move toward one another in a disagreement, aiming for “halfway happy,” we use a scale to describe how strongly we each feel about our opinion. If he’s at a 10 and I’m at a 3, we’ll go with what he wants, and vice versa. If we are both at a 5, there’s some give and take. Very seldom do we find ourselves at opposite 10s. (But in those moments, a particularly unfashionable concept comes into play.)
- Own your part. “Love Story” hit theaters in 1970 with its famous line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” People. That’s a terrible mindset to adopt. Love means freely and genuinely saying you’re sorry and then making any necessary repairs so that the relationship is healthy again. An inability to apologize reveals someone who cares more about protecting their own ego rather than the heart of their spouse; until this issue is addressed, they’re not ready to say “I do.”
- Remember the cross. I have to constantly keep in mind two truths: what a big fat sinner I am, and how wildly loved I am. The sooner I forget either one, the sooner things head downhill fast. If I’m standing firmly in the gospel, assured of my rightness in Christ alone, I have nothing to hide, nothing to prove, nothing to fear, and nothing to lose. My heart posture affects everything.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I do hope it is a helpful jumping-off point. At the end of the day, the question isn’t will you argue, but will your arguments make your marriage stronger?