Marriage

11 Rules for Fighting Right and Forgiving Faster

What’s the secret to a healthy marriage? Communicating respectfully, even during arguments, and refusing to hold a grudge. Learn how with these 11 rules for spouses with and without ADHD.

Pick your battles and learn to forgive, like this statue of a man and woman
Pick your battles and learn to forgive, like this statue of a man and woman

All couples fight. It’s part of love and marriage. But not all couples know how to move on after a dispute — and those who do have a serious edge, and a greater chance at lasting happiness.

The goal for all couples (particularly those with ADHD) is not to stop fighting — it’s going to happen — but to learn how to have “good fights.”

What Science Says

Relationship expert John Gottman, Ph.D., the author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, and his associates have done a lot of research on healthy relationships. Their work suggests that it’s not how often you fight that determines the durability of your relationship. It’s the actions you take when you fight, and how you repair any damage afterward with good communication, that predict a marriage’s stability.

Unfortunately, ADHD relationships have the deck stacked against them. Why?

1. Couples affected by ADHD face more ups and downs than do other couples.

2. Recent research done with twins suggests that emotional regulation problems are a genetically linked, a core feature of attention deficit. ADHD partners regularly have disproportionate emotional responses at unexpected times. This can leave partners, whether ADHD or non-ADHD, feeling as if they have to walk on eggshells.

3. The non-ADHD partner often falls into a habit of critiquing the spouse with ADHD, regularly judging, correcting, and ‘educating’ that partner to get organized, pay more attention, and the like. The complaining partner thinks she is putting the relationship on solid footing. She isn’t. Most of the time the person with ADHD sees criticism and directions as verbal abuse. He feels belittled and attacked, as if he can’t do anything right. His response is defensiveness and anger.

I’ve heard this complaint from lots of people with ADHD through the years: “I am doing my best to stay calm when my wife, who doesn’t have ADHD, nags me about the same things all the time. But I can’t help but get mad. She gets to me. We seem to fight all the time. Once we get started, she gets really angry, too…these fights are taking a toll on me.”

The husband likely needs better control of symptoms to be more reliable, and his wife needs to be more respectful and empathetic while he’s trying to achieve that. Even with those changes, the couple will still fight at times. Learning how to have a “good fight” — airing disagreements as equal partners rather than blowing up at each other — will help. Gottman suggests some ideas for taking the anger out of fights:

1. Start with a complaint, not a criticism. “I’m concerned that the garbage isn’t getting taken out regularly” is a complaint. “You never take out the garbage like you promise” is a criticism. Complaints work better; they are more respectful and don’t put the listener on the defensive so quickly.

2. Use a soft start — or ease into a topic. Soft starts show respect for the other person by not making assumptions. They usually include an observation, and they focus on feelings. Here’s an example of a soft start: “I really miss you. We aren’t spending enough time together these days.” The hard-start version of this is “You never pay attention to me!”

3. Be respectful. No matter how difficult the topic, or how upset you are, your partner always deserves respect. Don’t justify screaming or belittling. Treat your partner as you would like to be treated.

4. Use non-threatening words and don’t bully your partner. If you become flooded with emotions and feel you can’t help yourself, try to let your partner walk away from the argument.

5. Use clarifying phrases, such as, “If I understand correctly, we both think….”

6. Talk calmly. This is hard when things are emotional. Mindfulness training and deep breathing help.

7. Use verbal cues to de-escalate your interactions. In the Orlov household, if one of us gets too emotional — it happens to both of us — we may use the pre-agreed-on verbal cue “aardvark” to suggest we both need to take a break. We will return to the conversation later.

8. Look your partner in the eye. This serves the dual purpose of communicating effectively how you feel and ensuring that you have your partner’s attention.

9. Look for common ground. You are more likely to stay constructively engaged if you focus on similarities and shared concerns. Redirect an argument over bedtimes with “I know we are both trying to figure out the best balance between enough sleep and time with the kids…,” putting you both on the same problem-solving team.

10. Ask open-ended questions. The best fights are conversations in which you happen to disagree. Don’t lecture your partner. Instead, invite him or her in. “Do you see it that way?” or “What do you think?” can help. Listen to your partner’s response.

11. Use affirming statements. Even if you disagree with your partner, you can still make sure your partner’s opinion gets heard. “I understand that you feel I should be doing more chores, but I’m not sure I have enough time. We need to talk further” is more constructive than “I’m busy.” You may still not take on more chores, but you have shown that you hear your partner’s concern.

12. Accept the legitimacy of negative emotions. Rather than fighting against negative emotions, commiserate with your partner. This is important if your partner is feeling grief. You may be ready to “move on” but you will help your partner heal if you respond with “I’m so sorry we’ve been through all of this. It’s been hard.”

If these strategies seem obvious, ask yourself if you are using them consistently. Probably not. It takes thought and practice to use affirming statements and ask open-ended questions when you are angry. It’s not just the words, it is the emotions behind them that count.

A non-ADHD spouse confided in me: “It is hard for me to just walk away during an argument. I feel ignored, like he is not listening. When he gets angry, it can be explosive and out of control. Sometimes when I try to walk away, he is in such a rage that he keeps going. When I do walk away, he expects me to forget about it and not discuss the problem.”

The husband’s anger is called flooding. Flooding is a physiological response to feeling that you’re in danger or another extreme emotion. The parts of the brain needed to fight back are flooded with blood and oxygen for better performance. Unfortunately, these are taken from the parts of the brain that deal with logical thinking. When you are flooded, you might sense that you shouldn’t keep fighting, but you can’t get the logical part of your brain to get you to stop. For this reason, flooded arguments may threaten a marriage or relationship. The best way to deal with flooding is to agree on a verbal cue to stop the conversation before it goes further.

Research suggests that knowing how to recover from a fight is a critical skill. One person offers a “bid” for repair, such as an apology, while the other makes himself or herself “open” to that bid. A partner should accept an apology from his mate wholeheartedly rather than building a wall and refusing to do so.

It’s hard to predict which repair behaviors will work for which couples. Humor in a stressful moment might add to the problem for some couples and might smooth over the worst offenses for others.

Once, while my husband and I were fighting over my backing into his car accidentally, he tried to make peace by pulling a bouquet of limp flowers from his trunk that he had forgotten to give me. The gesture cracked me up and ended the fight.

Dead flowers might not work to calm your partner, but here are some olive branches you might offer:

1. Make an apology.

2. Talk about reconsidering your partner’s point of view (“I hadn’t thought of it that way”).

3. Remind your partner that you are on the same team: “If we both agree that it’s important to get to bed by 10, what might help us do that?”

4. Show appreciation: “I love that you have followed through on starting to exercise.”

5. Generalize the conversation to find common ground (“We might disagree on the details, but at least we’re finally in agreement that the gutters need fixing this year!”)

In addition, you might agree to disagree. Longitudinal research done with couples showed that about 70 percent of what a couple argued about 10 years ago was still being argued about 10 years later. If 70 percent of disagreements are unresolvable, it makes sense to know when to negotiate a truce, instead. This is called a “work around.”

You aren’t suggesting that your partner drop the problem. Instead, you acknowledge that the thing you have been fighting about is not resolvable, and it is in your best interests to deal with it constructively. This puts you back on the same loving team.

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