"The number one predictor of divorce is the habitual avoidance of conflict".
Unless you're active in the field of marriage education, you've probably never heard of Diane Sollee, but she's someone who deserves to be better known. I frequently turn to her website, http://www.smartmarriages.com/, for updates on marriage research and divorce statistics, and for Diane's own unique insights.
Diane believes---and I agree with her---that it is not only unrealistic but dangerous to think that marriage can be conflict-free. It's unrealistic because conflict is going to arise in any relationship in which people share a home, a bed, a checkbook, a family and an extended family, a past, and (presumably) a future. Even when two people are well-matched and well-intentioned, there will always be words that are misunderstood, motives that are suspect, moods that are unpredictable, and subjects that inevitably lead to arguments. Like it or not, this is normal.
Because conflict is normal, it's dangerous to pretend that is isn't. Avoiding conflict does not make it go away; it only postpones it and ensures that a discussion will turn into an argument, or an argument into a mud-slinging match. Some people are so fearful of conflict that they avoid even pleasant subjects of conversation, for fear that they will somehow deteriorate into a nasty exchange. (Diane uses the example of a New Yorker cartoon of a man and wife at a marriage counselor's office, with the caption, "We never talk anymore. We figured out that that's when we have all our fights").
So, what's the answer? How can we disagree without being disagreeable? At the risk of oversimplifying, I would suggest that you and your spouse adhere to a few basic ground rules:
1. Keep the discussion focused on the issue at hand, not on what happened yesterday, last week, or last year. (As I say in my book, banish the phrases, "You never..." and "You always..." from your vocabulary).
2. Don't intimidate, belittle, insult, or humiliate your spouse, no matter what the offense, no matter how great the provocation. As my old parish priest used to say, "Hate the sin, love the sinner".
3. Don't blame your spouse for things that are largely out of his or her control (e.g., your wife's widowed mother who drives you crazy by calling three times a day because she's lonely).
4. Don't get into arguments after you've had a couple of drinks; they tend to turn ugly in a hurry.
5. Have a sense of proportion and a sense of humility. Write down a list of at least three things you do that your spouse has a legitimate right to complain about. Work on those things as best you can, but think about them before you open your mouth to criticize your spouse about one of his or her failings.
6. If things are still veering out of control, learn to stop and say, "This is stupid. Why are we doing this to each other?" And say it with a smile.
If you want to learn more advanced techniques, Diane's website has lists of workshops and courses all over the country that will help you to become, as she puts it, "relationship smart". But whatever you do, accept that fact that conflicts are normal even in the best of marriages.
Jim Duzak, the "Attorney at Love", is a divorce lawyer, divorce mediator, former dating service owner, and the author of Mid-Life Divorce and the Rebirth of Commitment (Cold Tree Press, 2007). His blog, Jim Duzak's Quote & Comment, can be accessed through his website, www.attorneyatlove.com. You can contact him directly at , or purchase his book through amazon or any other online bookseller.