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A Critical Mistake Most Couples Make

  • Dr. David B. Hawkins Contributing Writer
  • Published Oct 07, 2005
A Critical Mistake Most Couples Make

Who hasn’t forgotten that their wife had a big deadline? Or perhaps you yelled at your husband unnecessarily, forgetting that he’d told you he had a late meeting at the office. Maybe you forgot your wedding anniversary or that it was your turn to pick up the kids from soccer practice. Mistakes happen.

These mistakes, dealt with immediately and remedied, cause little if any permanent damage. But, there are other mistakes that occur consistently over time and, like fine fabric left out in the weather, will easily tear our marriages apart under pressure. These are the mistakes we want to avoid. In future columns we will introduce nine critical mistakes. Today we will look at the first.

Stop Pushing the plunger.

Stephanie and Tim have been married twelve years and have three beautiful children. By all accounts they are the All-American family. They have survived the tumultuous first years of marriage, made it well beyond the early years of child-rearing, and have purchased a wonderful home with several acres of land where they enjoy raising and riding horses. But they have one significant problem: when they fight, they really fight.

Thankfully, this generally happy couple rarely fights. They love one another deeply and are fully committed to each other. They are active members in their church. However, they were embarrassed to tell me, in counseling, that when they fight they use language they would never otherwise use, slam doors and make threats against one another.

Stephanie has thrown dishes and Tim has broken the door jamb. They even pushed one another on one occasion. While they have vowed many times to stop this behavior, they say, “Our anger gets the best of us. When we’re mad, we’re likely to say anything.”

“I am really embarrassed at how I behave,” Tim said. “I don’t act like that with anyone other than my wife. I never lose my temper, not even with my kids, and they can push me to the limit. But, with Steph I want to make my point and feel she’s not listening to me. So, I know it sounds stupid, but I just yell louder. She yells at me and I yell louder.”

“It’s not just him,” Stephanie chimed in. “I act crazy. I don’t know what sets me off but I am a fiery redhead. I don’t like to lose. So, if I think what he is saying is nonsense, I tell him so. Of course, he doesn’t like it and there we go.”

Stephanie and Tim may be talking your language. You may be fighting in very destructive ways. Like the miners who push the detonator, sending debris in every possible direction, you may push the plunger on your anger, pushing emotions and language in every possible direction. If this sounds like you and your mate, you must learn some vital skills to avoid this critical mistake.

First, you and your mate must agree to call a time out when emotion starts to run high. The scriptures are clear about the problem with anger. “My dear brother, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life God desires.” (James 1: 19-20) Here the apostle James is clear — two ears to hear, one mouth to speak carefully. We must practice really listening, not pushing our agenda. When emotion runs too high, which happens, you must call a time out and start again when both feel settled. 

Second, agree to disagree. You do not have to agree on everything. It is perfectly all right to see things differently. In fact, someone has said that if you agree on everything, one of you is unnecessary. While I won’t go that far, you and your spouse are different people. You were raised differently, are different in skills, education, temperament and sex. In fact, the differences are so great it is a wonder anyone can live together. But, we can, and do, because differences are wonderful. Be careful, however, about demanding that your mate see things the same way you do. It’s not going to happen.

The Apostle James offers another word for us. “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (James 4: 1-2) Selfishness and pride often stand in the way of giving in to your mate. These are traits that must be managed in a healthy marriage.

Three, stay focused on the real issue. That means, of course, that you must agree ahead of time on the real issue. One topic at a time. While it may be tempting to take side trips from one topic to another, it will only serve to confuse the real issue. Pick a topic and stick with it. It may be helpful to keep a pad and pencil handy to remind yourselves of your starting point, as well as a desired ending.

Finally, find solutions that work for both of you. Remember, rather than engaging in a downward spiral where one person “wins” the other “loses,” how about working on an upward spiral where you both feel like you reached a positive outcome? It takes creative discussions to find agreements that meet both of your needs. One-sided victories are very hollow. Finding solutions that work for both of you are wonderful experiences and draw you closer together.

Until we talk again, work on eliminating the first critical mistake from your marriage and replace it with a wonderful solution. Blessings!

This article was adapted from Nine Critical Mistakes Most Couples Make (Harvest House Publishers, 2005).

Dr. David B. Hawkins regularly counsels hurting couples as a licensed clinical psychologist and social worker. He teaches at Washington State University and has hosted radio and television broadcasts on abuse and domestic violence. He is the author of several books, including Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage. You can reach Dr. Hawkins at: (fill in the blank).