When I was a child I heard the adage “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” While I have a few scars from sticks and stones, some of the words from those years and from other times in my life have left me with bigger scars. I think I knew even then that the adage wasn’t exactly true.
Recently we were with a younger couple and they commented on the fact that we didn’t bicker with each other. They asked us how we were able to avoid doing so. They said that so many married couples they know, especially his parents, are difficult to be around because most of their communications is nitpicking and throwing barbs at each other. Another friend told us that she doesn’t like being with her brother and sister-in-law because they do nothing but bicker. Even our grandchildren have commented from time to time about being bothered by couples they know. We had lunch with a couple recently and the wife suddenly began to criticize many things that her husband did or had failed to do. He got a little defensive at first, but in response to one particular barb I saw his face fall and he tuned out of the conversation. He seemed devastated, but said nothing. We have seen it happen in airports and when on vacation, with extended family and with friends. It doesn’t seem to be gender specific and in some couples both engage in bickering at different times.
I would venture to say that many couples who bicker, if asked, would say they never argue. The bickering seems to be such a part of their life that they are hardly aware of it, even though it is a constant source of tension in their relationship. The young couple’s question has led us to many discussions. First, why do couples bicker? Perhaps it is one’s need to be right, to have power over another. Maybe it stems from the inability to express one’s thoughts and feelings about a topic or not wanting to have to listen to what the other might say. Sometimes I think it reflects general unrest or unresolved issues in a relationship. It might also be from general frustrations about how the two live together and more specifically how they communicate. It is almost always about control – sometimes a battle for control in the relationship. Everywhere we’ve seen it; we have observed devastating effects on one or both of the spouses. Sometimes I wonder if couples are even aware that they are bickering. Put downs, constant correcting and barbs are those words that the adage says won’t hurt, but they do.
Since that question, we have asked ourselves why we rarely bicker. That doesn’t mean that, on occasion and out of frustration we might say something we regret as soon as it is spoken. We try to deal with the situations immediately, usually with a discussion about what prompted the behavior. Our answer to the question includes several things. First of all we come from parents who didn’t bicker. We never heard Bob’s parents do put downs or say things to each other out of anger or frustration. As much as I can remember about my parents I don’t ever remember them saying anything to each other that wasn’t kind. We told Joe and Mary (not their real names) that not bickering is like so many other things we do in our relationship, it is a decision we make. We make that decision out of love and especially respect for the other. In my mind it is part of the fidelity I promised on our wedding day. I promised to be faithful in mind, heart and spirit – not just physically. We have also found ways to express ourselves and have learned to think before we speak to each other. We do know that words can hurt and we don’t want to hurt each other. Lastly, in general, I’m a peacemaker. I can’t imagine living in a relationship that has bickering as the major way of communicating, nor would I want to.
I think Rita has covered this subject well. After she retired and we were together pretty much all the time, we went through a time when we seemed to be grumpy and bicker with each other more than was usual for us. That prompted us to go back and review the communication skills we had learned over many years and develop some new (for us) techniques. Among the most important ways we deal with a perceived put-down or slight immediately is that we have an agreement: when one of us is put off by something the other says, we simply ask a question. What did you mean by that? This is what I heard you say, is that what you meant? Are you saying…? While questions like these are potentially interpreted as threatening or as disagreement, we have agreed to understand all of these questions, not as disagreement or put-down, but as a request for more information or clarification. Sometimes, when one of us thinks that a question might be perceived as threat or disagreement, we will preface the question with: “I’m not disagreeing with you, just looking for more information.” I think it helps that each of us has great respect for the other and is willing to listen to the other.
We sometimes get into situations where misunderstandings come about when we each think that we are talking about the same thing, but we are not. It’s a situation where Rita makes a statement and it makes no sense to me – it doesn’t seem to fit the conversation. Often we both get frustrated, because we are both saying things that don’t fit the context for the other. After some bumbling along we usually figure out what is happening and can get the situation clarified for both of us. We have a simple technique that helps us to avoid these situations. When we have been discussing a topic and one of us wants to change the subject, we start by saying, “This is totally changing the subject”. The heads-up is a great help in avoiding confusion in the middle of a conversation.
Finally, we can avoid put-downs by using “I” statements. This is what “I” think, this is how “I” feel, in this situation…. These statements, used carefully, can help to avoid placing blame and putting the other on the defensive. It often eases the tension in a situation that could lead to a big fight.
These techniques help us to have many great discussions with each other, even on topics where we disagree. They help us to assure the other that a disagreement is not a put-down and does not imply that the other is not a good person. They show respect for the other and sometimes even allow us to enjoy a good disagreement.
Where do you rate bickering in your relationship on a scale of 1-no bickering, to 10-constant bickering? Are you happy with the level in your communication or is it a constant source of tension? Try to be aware when you are poking at your spouse – what do you see on his/her face? Perhaps some of the techniques that work for us can also work for you.
We married couples, by our example, do more to prepare young people for marriage than any day or weekend session that couples attend before they marry. What is the lesson you are teaching your children and grandchildren and all the unmarried persons that you encounter?
What are your ways of avoiding bickering in your marriage? Please leave a comment.