By Todd McFliker
I walked into the bedroom and nearly toppled headfirst over the stack of dirty dishes on the floor. As I regained my balance, I gawked at the bed stripped bare with soiled linens piled-up like afternoon traffic. In the distance, I caught a glimpse of several pieces of washed clothes strewn on top of the cabinet. Surveying the disaster scene that was a moment in my life, I wondered what Mary was trying to tell me.
Even though we’re newlyweds, Mary and I know we have issues. When it comes to talking about differences, we’ve both been known to favor signs and signals as opposed to sitting down family style. Sometimes we say volumes with a dirty look, nasty name or much less often, vengeful acts of spite. Recently, housework – more accurately, my total failure to help keep things tidy – has led to a few blow-ups and some lonely nights beneath our shared covers.
Sunday afternoon was a chance for both of us to realize how much we’re not alone while learning practical ways to work out our different styles and approaches without hurting each other. In a PAIRS marriage education class with participants of diverse backgrounds and relationships – longtime married, dating, life partners, parents trying to get along with their kids, and others adjusting to newborn babies – we learned to fight fair.
Jumping to the end, I’ll tell you now I’m going to be more helpful around the house. But the real story is how we got there. Like the old proverb about teaching a man to fish, in just a couple hours, Mary and I – like everyone else in the marriage class – learned to sit down and work through our differences without dirty fighting. We realized we’re actually on the same side even though we have our own habits and ways of handling much of what we’re now sharing together.
It’s easy to see how so many people end up divorced. The skills we learned weren’t taught in school and definitely weren’t modeled by either of our parents. There was nothing complicated about any of it. It’s just that no one had ever taught us how to fight fair.
Like many of life’s adventures, it begins with an invitation? Will you have a fair fight with me? When I answer yes, we sit face to face, knee to knee, holding hands, and follow a time-tested structure for confiding, negotiating and reaching an agreement.
In the class, couples help coach each other. They’re not professional counselors, therapists or anything of the sort – just other adults with their own struggles and life experiences. They assist us in staying on track. With the carefully scripted PAIRS Fair Fight process, another couple gently points out any dirty fighting, from facial expressions and distractions to poor word choices, sarcasm, and other typical ways loved ones push each other away. If they see anyone getting overwhelmed, they know in advance to encourage a time-out. Staying calm and focused is a vital building block to success.
After a few back and forths, Mary shared her concern, and I repeated it accurately back to her. She asked me specifically for what she wants, which I’ve also repeated back to make sure I’m hearing her accurately. I let her know some of my thoughts and feelings about her request. and enjoyed hearing her repeat back my own words, knowing that she was really getting me, not just hearing me. Moments later, we had an agreement. Not a forever agreement since we know it takes time, patience, and perhaps some trial and error to change old habits, but an agreement for what we’re going to do for the next 60 days. We came up with fun ways to remind each other of our special agreement, a schedule for weekly check-ins, and posted it all on the fridge.
I think about how easy it is for people in love to lose each other over such silly stuff.
While I know we’ll continue to face new challenges and struggles as we build our life together, I’m grateful for the new tools that taught us the Fab message, “We can work it out.”
A newlywed, Todd McFliker is an award-winning reporter and the author of All You Need is Love to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. He earned his Masters in Communication from Lynn University.