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Couples Learn to Fight Fair in Marriage Classes


With many wanting to head for their windows to scream, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” marriage education is helping couples learn safe ways to confide feelings such as anger, fear, and sadness on behalf of greater love and intimacy. Experts say learning to confide, rather than avoiding conflict, is key to healthy relationships. Marriage classes are helping thousands of couples learn to fight fair.

By Todd McFliker

In the 1976 blockbuster Network, evening news anchor Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, urges viewers to open their windows, stick their heads out, and scream, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

The film struck a chord with a worldwide audience during a period of economic and social uncertainty, winning four Academy Awards and continued recognition decades later.

Recent news stories left me thinking that for many, it may be time to open our windows for another scream. When it comes to preserving marriages and sanity alike, finding positive ways to release feelings of anger, fear, frustration, and sadness are key.

PAIRS helps couples prevent divorce
PAIRS Marriage Education

The challenge of learning, working, and loving with a gut full of powerful emotions is one with which many can identify. “Emotions themselves are not the problem,” says Seth Eisenberg, President of the nonprofit PAIRS Foundation, an industry leader in relationship and marriage education. “We feel what we feel.  The real question is what we tell ourselves about our feelings and what we do with them.”

Dr. Doyle Hamilton, a therapist in Atlanta, helps prepare couples for marriage. In a recent CNN feature, Hamilton said today’s newlyweds have a 50-50 chance of staying married. The odds are significantly worse, he cautions, for those heading down the aisle a second time.

Like Eisenberg, Hamilton says couples who learn to fight fair and handle conflicts constructively have a much better chance of keeping the flames alive. Both agree that sweeping differences under the rug, acting one way when you feel very differently inside, and other creative ways of avoiding conflict can be the kiss of death for love and intimacy.

I’ve had my own issues with a temper that sometimes boils over into angry expressions directed at those to whom I closest. A recent newlywed, I thought stuffing my feelings inside would help preserve and protect my marriage. Hamilton, Eisenberg and other experts helped me realize I had it almost exactly wrong.

Ask nearly anyone with the perspective of having lived a life of joy and fulfillment and you’ll almost surely hear the same reaction.  Marriage, children, and individuals’ closest relationships were the greatest source of life’s most cherished moments and memories. When we separate what’s most meaningful in life from the events that are fleeting at best, with few exceptions, they are connected to shared experiences with the people we love.

It’s no surprise that sustaining love, intimacy, marriages and families takes work.  Who could expect that the very foundation of our lives is created without periods of turmoil, challenge, and most important, opportunities to learn, grow, and choose the legacy and meaning of the years we’re given?

PAIRS helps couples prevent divorce

PAIRS Helps Fight Divorce

Telling us not to avoid conflict and sharing the full range of feelings with intimate others is one thing, but staying mature during a disagreement can be quite another.  When my wife and I begin to argue, my heart instantly starts pounding, my adrenaline rises and my blood pressure shoots through the roof.  Immediately, I want to “mud-sling,” bringing up my wife’s past mistakes to hurt her feelings.  If I were to actually blow my top, my actions could seem irrational, inexcusable and hurt the most important person in my life.

Fortunately for our marriage, I’m learning positive outlets for the different stages of my own anger, which Charles Spielberger, Ph.D., aptly describes is “an emotional state that varies in intensity from mild irritation to intense fury and rage.”

I know that strong emotions in any lasting, honest relationship are inevitable.  They don’t have to be destructive.  With the right guidance, a couple can learn to empty their Emotional Jugs in a healthy manner to each other, with permission, rather than carrying around past or present hurts in invisible “gunnysacks.”

Before I “pop my cork” or my wife “blows her lid,” we can learn to accept all of our emotions as a natural part of being alive.  Bringing emotions into the open within a structure that’s safe, invited, and with permission can lead to deeper empathy, closeness and love.

As adults, we’re very much influenced by the examples we saw growing up. Eisenberg says children who grew up with parents who were “dirty fighters” often model similar behaviors in their own adult relationships. “If we grew up with a parent who threw tantrums, we could believe that’s okay for our own relationships,” Eisenberg says. “We could also become so afraid of the slightest sign of conflict that we do whatever we can to avoid it, which itself can become destructive.”

I now know that using the right behaviors to navigate through the natural conflicts that arise in marriage will usually work.  Finding an ideal marriage education workshop was key for us.  That’s where the PAIRS Foundation came in.  My wife and I learned practical skills for building our marriage with patience, confidence and intimacy.  If we decide to have children, they too can gain positive guidance to learn, grow and mature.  And when it comes time for their personal relationships, they’ll know the essential skills to one day navigate their roles as husbands, fathers, wives or mothers.

PAIRS helps couples prevent divorce
PAIRS Emotional Jug

Closer to home, I think of the detrimental effects that my sister’s current separation is having on her two little boys.  With dad no longer living in the house, they are surely missing their father’s support and security.  There’s no longer a male role model to demonstrate essential values for their future relationships as grown men.  And they’re learning that when there are problems in a relationship, people break-up instead of finding ways to work through their differences with love and understanding.

Making matters even worse, which is not unusual for children facing the loss of family stability, both kids have been constantly misbehaving.  Perhaps it’s from the mixture of misunderstanding, frustration and anger.  Rather than throwing in the towel on their marriage, my sister and her husband have to sort through the obstacles to find what’s truly causing so much pain, anger and sadness in place of the love and dreams that they once shared.

For my sister and her husband, my wife and me, and every couple, the passage to intimacy requires both partners to be open to learning and growing together with good will and maturity. “Divorce is almost always unilateral.  It’s not a democracy.  One person gets to decide the fate of not only the marriage but the family,” says Michelle Weiner Davis, a recognized marriage expert and author of Divorce Busting.

Research conducted by the PAIRS Foundation last year found that more than 75% of couples experiencing high levels of marital distress showed significant improvement six to 12 months after beginning classes. “Couples learn to truly confide in each other, express the full range of emotions, and deal with differences in ways that leave them feeling much closer to each other,” Eisenberg says. “From that foundation, staying a pleasure in each other’s lives becomes part of their daily road map.”

I hope my sister and her husband’s devotion to their children and the memory of the love they once shared will help them get the skills and guidance needed to let go of grudges, forgive one another, and realize that there is hope for their marriage and family. The price of divorce for children in particular is too high not to make every effort to see what’s possible.

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