How Happy Couples Fight

Couples have disagreements. They argue. They get angry at one another. But many couples remain happily together in spite of this. How do they do it? How can a happy couple still have marital problems? That’s the question that a group of researchers (Rauer, Sabey, Proulx, & Volling) set out to answer. To answer the question, they looked at two groups of heterosexual married couples. One group was in their mid-to-late thirties and had been married an average of nine years. The other group was in their early seventies and had been married an average of 42 years. Researchers observed the couples discussing marital problems. This is what they discovered.

  1. Happy couples focused on issues with clear solutions first. This involved issues like distribution of household chores or how to spend their free time. The solutions to these problems were more concrete, measurable so to speak. Focusing on more solvable problems built up both partners’ sense of security in the relationship. It strengthened the sense of “we” in the relationship as they worked to successfully solve these “issues.” It helped to enhance intimacy.
  2. Happy couples rarely focused on those problems that involved more difficult solutions. They focused less on those perpetual problems. Perhaps more difficult-to-solve problems threatened each partners’ confidence in the relationship. By focusing on the more solvable problems, they built a solid base of security that allowed for the greater possibility of solving some of the more difficult problems through willing sacrifice and difficult compromise as well.
  3. Couples married longer reported fewer serious issues. They also reported arguing less overall. This, in combination with other research, suggests that happy couples learn to prioritize their marriage. Over time, they come to realize that some issues just aren’t worth the argument. They learn to choose their battles wisely.

So, how do happy couples fight? In the words of the Grail Knight in Indiana Jones, they “choose wisely.” They choose to focus first on those solvable problems in their marriage. Doing so builds a foundation of trust, a strong sense of security. It is a practical way of prioritizing the “we” of their marriage above the individual. This foundation allows them to solve some problems that remain more difficult to resolve. As they do this, they learn to prioritize their marriage above individual wants and desires, even those desires one partner may believe to be a need. Ironically, they even learn that some of those “difficult-to-solve” problems really aren’t as essential as they use to believe. They just aren’t worth the argument. The relationship is more important. And rather than watching their marriage decay in the pain of bad decisions (like the man who drank from the wrong cup in Indiana Jones), they focus on gaining the intimacy, wisdom, and joy of a happy marriage. They “choose wisely.”

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