My wife and I take a “see something, say something” approach to our marriage. When one of us does something, and the other notices it and doesn’t particularly agree, we say something. It doesn’t matter where we are: at my in-laws’ house, with my family, out in public, or with friends. We bicker. It doesn’t make our relationship weak or unhealthy or take us on the fast track to divorce court. Bickering, for us and many other couples, is a sign of a healthy relationship. We put communication first and then leave room for further chats later. My wife and I bicker just about every day; it’s part of our relationship and we are okay with that. We also love each other very much and show that affection just as often as we bicker.
I’d consider my kind of bickering borderline nagging. My wife genuinely wants to understand my point of view (while digging in her own thoughts/concerns/opinions a little deeper). And it doesn’t matter what we’re bickering about; it could be something as little as my wife not putting the proper hair products on our daughter’s hair in the morning for school. Or that I didn’t put my clothes away from the night before. Or why I am particular about how I like the fridge arranged after grocery shopping.
Or like this past Sunday, we bickered over a chair… yes, a chair. We have twin daughters, L and A. L wanted the chair A had just left. I explained to L that she could have it. My wife steps in and said, “No, A is returning to her chair,” and I responded with, “It doesn’t look like she’s going back.” This went on for well, probably two minutes … two minutes too long, I know. In the end, neither L nor A chose to sit in the chair and they didn’t argue at all. The bickering ceased and we all went back to our normal Sunday. But this is the kind of bickering we do. We don’t argue, yell, scream or take digs at one another.
The key to a healthy relationship is communication. And there are healthy and unhealthy ways to communicate. Bickering is not an unhealthy form of communication — unless feelings are hurt and insults are made, then the bickering becomes a problem. There’s a substantial difference between a harmless tiff and a heated argument. If a topic brings up strong emotions, it’s best to approach it privately and during a time when no one is agitated already.
Couples who claim they “never fight” may not be communicating at all. If a couple does not fight at all, it means that one of them is too scared to speak up, and that couple needs to find a good therapist to work with. Holding everything in and not processing issues in the relationship is unhealthy for both partners.
For relationships lacking in communication, couples therapy is a great idea. It’s like a tune-up for your relationship. You take your car in for maintenance, you go to the dentist, and you schedule your annual with your gynecologist, which you know will be an uncomfortable experience. You may start couples therapy feeling uncertain and uncomfortable, but over time, you’ll ease into the process, just like when it’s time to put your legs up in stirrups at the gynecologist. Even happy couples can benefit from this; therapy shouldn’t be reserved for relationships that are on the rocks.
Therapy is about letting down your guard, opening yourself up for the honest dialogue, and actively changing how you engage with your partner. It does not mean never arguing; it means communicating differently. My wife and I went to therapy together, and it forced us to sit and listen to one another in ways that we previously had not. We still bickered while sitting in our seats in front of the therapist. His response? “There is such love there” — and he was right. There is. Love is the foundation for every relationship, and from that foundation, everything else grows.
When we bicker, we are showing our kids that we disagree about something. And that is okay for our kids to know. It shows them that their parents are communicating, even if it’s about where the ottoman is positioned on the living room rug or how the car shouldn’t be parked on the grass in the driveway. We are creating a safe environment for our kids to witness our disagreement but we are also making space for one another, as a couple, to express our feelings, then and there.
In an article for Psychology Today, Susan Heitler, Ph.D., says that, “Marriage works best when you both aim to stand together, united against the problems, not pitted against each other. Better marriage advice: All married folks have conflicts, but conflict means there are differences that need to be resolved, not argued.” Having an argument is not the end of the world; it is necessary to build one another up, to communicate in ways that will teach you about one another, create a deeper understanding of what some of the marital issues are, and then work it out, together.
As parents, we teach our kids to communicate their needs, their wants, and their frustrations. We help them through sticky social situations, we role-play with them, and we model the behaviors we want them to emulate. We are our kids’ best teachers, and if we fail them in one of the most basic lessons — understanding effective ways to communicate, including conflict resolution — they will have a difficult journey into adulthood.
Couples who say they don’t argue are teaching their kids that no one ever has disagreements or strong opinions or needs to prove anything to anyone else. The word “argue” implies that someone (if not both people) feels upset or frustrated or sad or may have many other feelings about a particular disagreement. But those feelings are okay too and should be expressed and discussed in a healthy way — even in front of the kids.
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