Research shows that spouses who wage small fights on a regular basis tend to avoid big blowout disagreements in the long run.
When Bob Gubrud heard about a survey saying that arguing with your spouse at least once a week makes for stronger, longer marriages, he chuckled as he quipped sarcastically, "That must mean that our marriage is fantastic, because sometimes we have one a day."
The Edina man and his wife, Rosie, have been married 52 years, so they're clearly doing something right. According to marriage counselors, their disagreements can help them iron out small differences before they become major issues.
The survey, released this month, found that 44 percent of married couples believe that fighting more than once a week helps keep the lines of communication open. While that survey was done in India, it reinforces similar studies that have been done in the United States, said William Doherty, a professor in the University of Minnesota's Department of Family Social Science.
The studies come with a couple of caveats, he added: For starters, nobody is recommending that you put down the newspaper and pick a fight with your spouse. It's also important to remember that there's a difference between "good fighting" and "bad fighting," and the latter can be as destructive as the former is beneficial.
"What the studies have shown is that it's not so much whether couples get angry but how they handle it," he said.
Sandy and Frank Burris of Prior Lake have been married 56 years. Happily? Yes. Peacefully? Not always. "We do [argue] all the time," Sandy said. "There are lots of things we don't agree on. If we did agree all the time, it would be boring."
Doherty seconded that sentiment. "Constructive conflict can put a spark in a relationship," he said. "Love needs a spark every now and then."
Katherine Youngblood of Edina said that by disagreeing with each other, she and her husband of 54 years have figured out their mutual priorities. "You realize what issues are important and what's not so important," she said.
Doherty said that arguing "helps couples recalibrate by addressing the things that are important to them. I see a lot of couples bury these things under the rug -- and that rug ends up getting really lumpy."
Trying to connect
All things being equal, marriage counselor Bernie Slutsky would rather have the couples who come into his Therapy for Relationships offices in St. Louis Park and Maple Grove yell at each other than ignore each other.
"At least they're trying to reach the other person," he said. "Sometimes it's a case of, 'You're not listening to me so I'm going to tell you louder,' and we have to tone that down. But it's still better than if they just sit there and stonewall each other. That's a lot more destructive."
As for arguing in front of your children, counselors say it depends on the issue and the depth of feelings behind it. You don't want let children see you waging a war, but having them witness what Doherty calls "low-level skirmishes" is healthier for everyone.
"If they never see you argue, they're going to get a very unrealistic image of marriage," he said. "If it's hostile, contemptuous, full of shouting and name-calling, that's bad. But if it's a small irritation that is addressed respectfully and the kids see that 15 minutes later you've gotten over it and everything is fine again, that's helpful."
Don't come out swinging
Arguing can be beneficial, but only if it's done right.
"If it's intentionally hurtful and abusive, it's not helpful," Slutsky said. "Don't attack; argue. And don't blame. It has to be done in a way that you're not trying to hurt the other person. You're just expressing your point of view."
That can mean making a conscious effort to avoid falling into old habits that are ineffective and, at worse, can destroy the whole process.
"We tend to get stuck in patterns, and we have to break out of those patterns," he said. "I see a lot of couples that are trying to connect, but they don't know how to do it."
For starters, it has to be a mutual endeavor, Doherty said.
"It's not uncommon for one person to want to bring up issues and for the other person to not want to, and that's not a good thing," he said. "If it's an issue for one of you, it's an issue for the marriage. If someone brings up an issue more than once, you need to talk about it."
Research shows that women bring up issues of conflict 80 percent of the time. But regardless of the origin, how the discussion starts often will determine how things will go.
"Research has shown that a soft start-up is the best way," Doherty said. "Say that a woman wants some help with the housework at night. A soft start-up would be: 'I know that you're tired, but I feel as if I'm being taken advantage of.' A hard start-up would be: 'Why are you sitting there watching TV while I do all the work?' That sort of an opening puts the other person on the defensive."
Not dealing with issues when they arise can lead to resentment.
"For the person who has an issue, the pressure keeps building up until they can't take it anymore, and then it's like holding a lit match to gasoline," he said. "And all you're doing in that case is teaching your partner to run away until the storm passes."
Some Minnesotans may hit another obstacle to healthy arguing: It's not a very Scandinavian thing to do.
"My wife [of 45 years] and I both are of Scandinavian backgrounds, and that works against us when it comes to this," said Dick Crockett of Edina. "Scandinavians are not comfortable with confrontation. The basic rationale of a Scandinavian marriage is 'Don't ask, don't tell.'"
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392