Like most men, I’d rather face the barrel of an assault rifle than an angry wife.
— Forest fire by Nelson De Mille
If you think make-up sex is something that only happens in movies, this column is for you.
It is not uncommon in my work as a psychotherapist to talk to men who have become such conflict avoiders that placating their wives is the most important thing in their relationship with them. They are so scared of their partner’s disapproval that they have essentially given up any effort to try to work things out or get closer. All they want now is for her to stop being mad at them.
In intimate relationships, anger is simply an indication that the other person doesn’t like how things are going in the relationship and would like things to be better. If your wife tells you, “I’m mad because you forgot that we agreed to work in the garden this weekend and you made other plans,” that’s not an attack or personal criticism that should be defended or, worse yet, retaliated against. . She didn’t say that you did something wrong or that you need to do something different.
He just said he didn’t like the way things went between you. She is giving you important information about how she feels about her connection to you, and your job is just to listen.
Of course, in the real world, anger is rarely expressed so cleanly. The message you receive may sound more like “I’m mad at you for making other plans, and you always do it because I’m not as important to you as your friends!” In this case, your job is still to listen, although you may have to listen a bit more between the lines to get to the important information. Good conflict helps people solve problems and feel closer.
That’s why people get excited about make-up sex; couples often feel much closer after a good argument, and there is a thrill that comes from having cleared the air that can energize a couple sexually.
Not all conflict is useful
Conflict can also be abusive, requiring an entirely different set of responses. Abuse is not about trying to get close to another person; abuse is speaking without regard to the impact of your words on another person or, in the extreme, even intentionally trying to hurt another person. The proper response to abuse is to set firm limits and, if that doesn’t work, to walk away.
Women often get angry when they want more closeness and connection with their partners. Since men are socialized to feel responsible for any unhappiness in their partners, they often hear their partner’s request for more intimacy as a complaint or even an accusation that they have done something wrong or are missing something important. They react to what they hear as criticism by becoming defensive, further frustrating their partners by creating more distance instead of less. And they go.
Here are three tips to help you have the kind of positive conflict that can help couples resolve conflict and feel closer:
1. Be intentional with your arguments
Arguing should be a way to work things out so you can get closer. Think about the ways you want to feel closer to your partner and keep that in mind during the discussion.
Pick a time and place where you can both be at your best.
This is somewhat complicated; there is no need to make it harder by arguing when you are both tired or you will be interrupted. Pick a time and place to talk where you can focus on each other and won’t be interrupted. I always forget that I have to tell people this, but turn off the television and your cell phones!
2. Avoid hard starts
Noted couples researcher John Gottman found that when arguments don’t start off well, they’re likely to end badly. If the discussion gets off to a rocky start and seems like it’s going south quickly, don’t be afraid to pause it and come back to it another time.
Talk about yourself and what you feel instead of making attributions about your partner.
Everyone is defensive when someone tries to criticize or correct them; it just won’t work out. If you don’t like the way your partner is behaving, talk about how that behavior affects you instead of telling them why their behavior is wrong.
3. Speak responsibly
Think about the impact of your words before you say them. Take responsibility for the impact of your words, even if the impact of your words was different from what you intended. In Jewish ethics, harmful speech is a greater sin than theft because if you steal from someone you can repair, but you cannot undo the damage caused by speech.
My hope is that using some of these tips will not only help you not be afraid to argue with your partner, but also help you feel more confident that facing conflict head-on will help you feel closer.
This article is excerpted from Hidden in Plain Sight: How Men’s Fears of Women Shape Their Intimate Relationships (Enduring Impact Press, 2021).