My parent’s celebrated their 34th wedding anniversary last weekend with a trip to Disneyland. I got a text of my mother riding Space Mountain with my tall father beside her. They were smiling in glee.
I feel their faithfulness to each other remains a diamond-gift to their four children.
When I got married over 10 years ago Dale and I rode a convertible Prowler (thanks, Dad) down Pacific Coast Highway, my veil whipping in the wind. At one red light a van of guys yelled porno suggestions to us.
I had no idea what they were saying, Dale was a little more aware. At the next red light a rough, big dude on a Harley gurgled his beast past our car and then slowly backed to level next to me. I felt my heart go tight. What would he say?
He just stared through his dark lenses.
“Communication,” he roared.
Green light and he was gone.
We laughed and laughed in relief.
Growing up I saw how communication was practiced between my parents, seemed pretty darn smooth.
Later, I learned they did argue, but not in front of us. Advice popular among my parents suggested not fighting in front of the kids as it disturbs their confidence that the marriage is safe. Some disagree now, as Caryn Rivadeniera explains in Duke it Out for Them: Why Kids Need to See Their Parents Fight, I tend to agree with Rivadeniera. But regardless, we could all use some tips on fighting fairly in public or private.
Some colleagues visited us in Steamboat last week, they shared about how one marital counselor told them, “The issue isn’t if you’re going to fight. All couples fight. I want to teach you how to fight fair.”
You can’t eliminate fighting from relationship, that is unless you want to erase yourself. But you can argue, fight, even quarrel while practicing all the fruit of God’s spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control Gal 5:22).
For all those wanting to argue better, a few fighting-fair rules.
The Basic Formula
You want to share something, change something, disagree. Begin with this basic formula, “I feel A because of B” where A = feeling word and B = state of affairs as best you see them.
There are lots of ways to get this seemingly simple statement wrong. “A” must be an emotion, not “I feel like you’re stupid because you didn’t do this right” or “I feel like you’re annoying,” or “I feel like you’re an idiot.” Feeling someone is an idiot is not an emotion. Instead you can say, “I feel ignored because the counter has these crumbs on it.” B must be something you state about the world and not transmogrify into an accusation, such as “I feel ignored because YOU didn’t clean the counter.” Can you hear the blame?
Give it a whirl. What do you need to fight over? Approach with the basic formula, approach with a tone of revealing yourself not accusing them. If you’re unsure, try out a few in the comments and I’ll walk you through.
Some successful formulas I’ve used, “I feel disrespected (or bitter or embarrassed, or like a bird chirping on a twig all alone–metaphors are always fun) when I find I’m repeating the same sentence three times to you” not “I feel you’re ignoring me” or “I feel like you’re a jerk.” You can say, “I feel ignored, dissatisfied, confused….” etc.
The phrase, “I feel blamed,” should be used often and liberally whenever the basic formula is flouted or manipulated.
It’s a good phrase to use anytime you’re really trying to fight fair.
J: “I feel like I’m doing all the work around here because you’re just sitting and reading the paper.”
D: “I feel blamed.”
J: “GRRRRRR! Okay, I feel very very very exhausted because you’re not doing anything.”
D: “I feel blamed.”
J: “I feel exhausted” at this point I was unable to get to “B”.
D: “I’m sorry you feel exhausted, what can I do?”
J: (spinning rolodex of possibilities) “Could you take Finn for a few hours?”
D: “I don’t think I can take him that long, I’m wiped, too.”
J: “Well, I have a post I have to write. Could you give me some time to work on it?”
D: “How much time do you want?”
J: “Two hours.”
D: “I can give you one hour right now.”
J: “I’ll take it.”
Please note this is not a real conversation, okay, maybe it is.
The Basic Formula works well IF you are working with someone who respects and loves you. Proverbs 25 talks about well-spoken words being greeted by the wise with warm eyes. The wise want to know your feelings, they’ll greet them as something beautiful (like apples in silver or a gold earrings on a lovely woman) if you can share without blaming. Proverbs 26 talks about how a fool responds to rebuke; they cannot handle the truth. You’ll know a fool by how they respond to your emotions.
The basic formula does not work with fools and therefore, should not be used.
I have, unhappily, been in relationships with fools. When I share, “I feel disrespected when you say I look fat” and the response is, “Well, what do you want me to do about it?” with a tone of challenge and annoyance.
Notice the red light, a train is coming down the bend. Stop. This person is immature, a fool, unable to handle honest sharing and emotions. You can say, “I’d like an apology.” But they may very well say, “Well, I didn’t say anything wrong, you are fat.” etc etc.
At this point you can take a mental post-it, write “fool” on it and stick it on their head (metaphorically, speaking). Remember this label. You cannot trust this person with your feelings. Change the subject or leave the room. That said, relationships require mutual love and respect for each other’s feelings and vulnerabilities (not just respect for the guy and love for the girl, Are Women Natural Lovers? for more).
Like apples of gold in settings of silver
Is a word spoken in right circumstances.
If you work on the Basic Formula (and I mean work on it for YEARS), you’ll find a blossoming of safety in your home. You will be able to hold onto yourself and your feelings while others do not agree. Your spouse’s refusal to do as you ask will not feel like a tactical loss. You will find you can state your feelings, feel heard and respected and still be disagreed with. Disagreement is actually evidence that you are safe, that you are not punishing. Ask yourself beforehand, “If he says no, what will I do?”
Dale and I parsed out chores today (a good Equally Shared Parenting exercise) and he stoutly refused to clean the nooks and crannies of the kitchen counter tops as often as I’d like. His easy disagreement and my own calmness felt like cool lemonade on a hot day. The disagreement without unkindness, the clarity of our differences without disgust.
It had all the honesty and reality of fighting fair.
Finn was taking notes, I could tell.