We Saved Our Marriage by Learning How to Fight for It

We learned how to grow and heal ourselves (and each other)


More than two years ago, I wrote here about a low point in our relationship. We had been through challenges that tested us beyond our limits—and contrary to the narrative arc I hoped for, we were neither kinder nor gentler nor more patient with each other. Instead we were cruel and petty and dysfunctional.

Arguments were so tempting to escalate because of our fears. For him, the fear was ultimately about whether I would leave him: every disagreement, from forgetting to do the dishes to how we related to our families, was a test of my love and commitment. For me, the fear was about whether I had sacrificed too much to be with him: my youth, my values, the future I had planned for myself when he wasn’t in the picture. For me, fighting about forgetting the dishes was about whether I had completely misjudged what my life with him would be like; whether I could raise children with a person who thought this way, whether I was a worse person with him. I was afraid of how stupid I would look to everyone if I had to admit that I had been wrong about this bold decision of mine.

So we attacked each other, shouting accusations and blame in fitful attempts to hold the fear at bay. To put the responsibility for that fear—and the actions and words we put into the world because of it—squarely on the other person. To avoid facing that our fears might come true. And that it might be our own fault as much as theirs. We pushed away this one pain, and instead opened ourselves to this other one—the brutal pain of hurting each other, over and over again, in a seemingly endless cycle.

The way fear drives us in this way is obsessive and irrational, like banging our heads into a wall, pushing us to say over and over and over: if you act like this, if you say these things, then you don’t really love me, you don’t understand me, you don’t care about what I want, you don’t respect me, you don’t want me to be who I am.

After I wrote my last post, things got worse before they got better. The triggers for fights had taken root in all kinds of seemingly innocuous topics and situations. Fights escalated to absurd, devastating heights—even if we had had them a dozen times before. I got to the point of seriously planning to leave twice: once at the height of all our external stressors and issues, and once about half a year after those concrete issues that caused most of our stress and conflict had disappeared. I told him so. Each time, we talked through it and I decided I wanted to stay.

In deciding to stay, I thought a lot about my fears, especially that second time. I realized I could handle quitting. I would be heartbroken, but I knew what my next steps would be and who I would lean on. I knew I could deal with the muttering and knowing looks.

The question of staying was the question of whether we could grow and heal together, after we had torn each other and ourselves to our very worst. I loved him to the core. I knew who he was. I knew how he was hurting. I knew his restlessness, his fierce commitment, his exhaustion, his giving up, his needing home, his needing so much that he didn’t know how to ask for. I decided to stay because I knew how good we could be. I chose to stay with eyes wide open, even knowing how low we had brought each other—and might well do again.

Slowly—oh so slowly—the resentment began to fade and we started to heal. Somewhere along the way, we stopped acting afraid. We started treating each other like we actually believed that the other person was a good human being, a human being who loved us and wanted the best for us.

And a funny thing happened to our disagreements. Arguments just… weren’t that interesting to pursue anymore. It’s not to say that we don’t still have disagreements. We do disagree, regularly and sometimes vehemently—over small things, and over big things. The small things I can laugh off, but the heavy stuff still makes my ears burn, makes me feel sick to my stomach, makes me burst into tears. But instead of letting it spin into a tornado of accusations and shouting, we can say, “I wish you hadn’t done that. It really hurt me.” Turns out, we’d let our fears pit us against each other for too long, as if winning an argument would give any satisfaction. There’s no comparing it to the safety, love, and loyalty I feel when we are gentle to one another even (or especially) when we’re both fuming. We finally came to our senses and realized: we’re in this together

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  • Anonymous Too

    I needed to read this right now, for reasons I’m not ready to articulate outside of my own head. Thank you for sharing.

  • anon

    “We started treating each other like we actually believed that the other person was a good human being, a human being who loved us and wanted the best for us.”
    I just realized where all my doubts and anxiety are coming from. Wow. Being willing to risk yourself and believe in that is so hard. Damn.

  • Anon for this

    I needed to hear this today. We’re in marriage counseling right now and it hurts. so. damn. badly. It’s good to hear about couples that made it out to the other side. I hope (so desperately) we can get there too.

  • Hello, can I just say people never talk about this part of relationships. How much insecurities can play into our relationships. I dated my husband for 4 years before we married most of this was in college with a lot of other people who seemed to just be having the most fabulous relationships. But there were parts of our relationship that were vicious and we didn’t have a lot of people who we felt we could talk to. Over time things have improved. We are quite happily married, but we are still working on trusting in the midst of the hard stuff. It’s easy to say we’re a team, it’s not as easy to act like that’s true when things blow up.

    • Ashlah

      It is so hard to find people to talk to about your relationship issues. No one (or not many people) will give you spouse the same benefit of the doubt, so to speak, that you do. One fight that you and your spouse work through and move past can leave a lasting negative impression on someone not privy to the rest of the relationship.

      • Violet

        So agree with this! I feel really lucky to have a handful of people who won’t (and haven’t) held those kinds of things against my partner. Any of the worst things my partner has done, my mom knows. And he knows she knows. Because otherwise I’d have to process things all on my own, without an external perspective, and I just don’t feel comfortable doing that.

      • Eenie

        Yes! I have one person that I can really talk to when we have issues. Everyone else gets only half the story or a balanced viewpoint because I would never just openly trash talk my spouse. I even try to limit the complaining or “men can never do X right” talk. I don’t find it constructive, but having one person who doesn’t then judge my husband based off our fights is awesome. One little safe outlet.

      • I don’t know where I read this (maybe the first APW book) but early on in our engagement we each picked 2 “vent people” that we identified as non-spouse sounding boards for if/when one of us needed to vent/work through thorny problems. We chose them together, specifically picking people who wouldn’t hold grudges and knew the other person well enough to give sound advice.

        • Aubry

          Yes absolutely! I have a verbal, sealed with a handshake, deal with one of by best buddies that we will never hold anything one of us says against their spouse. It is great, cause I have someone I can tell all the nitty gritty stuff to without fear of judgement, and the others get the smoothed over version. I unfortunately learned that certain people I cannot tell stuff to. I feel like this is super important.

          • Me too. Some people are not good at that AT ALL. My vent friend and I come to the conversation with the basic assumption that we will make up with our partners end the end so they just need to help us get there. * He’s a thinker about thorny problems and I’m a talker. He needs space and I need conversation. Having vent friend means I can talk my way through the problem without making it worse by forcing him to listen to me do it.

            *ovbs, cases of abuse, neglect, etc do not get the “figure it out” treatment.

      • tr

        My biggest tip for finding people who you can talk to about relationship issues is to look to other MARRIED friends who share similar values and ideas regarding marriage (bonus points if that friend and her partner have personalities that somewhat mirror that of you and your partner). Odds are, if your friend has been married for more than a month or two, she will know full and well from firsthand experience that even very good people with very good relationships can have some very bad moments. Single friends are wonderful for many things, but at least in my experience, that is one area where they tend to come up a little short.

        Also, I don’t do my venting in the heat of the moment–I try to wait until after the storm has passed, so that I don’t present things in overly dramatic terms! Venting about an issue over mimosas two weeks after the fact is every bit as rewarding as a dramatic sob fest mid-fight, but is much less likely to leave your friend thinking that you married Hannibal Lecter.

  • LittleOwl

    “… As if winning an argument would give any satisfaction.”

    I definitely needed to hear this today. I’ve been married for two months and I was surprised how quickly our disagreements have changed since our marriage. It’s really not about winning anymore, and now I’m relearning how to fight productively. It’s so comforting to hear about a marriage that grows stronger from the low points.

    Does anyone else have advice/experience about arguing during the first year of marriage? Aside from the disagreements, I think I’m also grieving a little that the honeymoon period seems to be over so quickly.

    • AP

      I think this is a great idea for an open thread, just to talk about newlywed experiences. I’ve been going through a little sadness that we seem to have settled into a mundane routine more quickly than I’d anticipated at only six months into marriage. Could be just the winter blues that I get every year, but I do think it’s a little more than that. I wouldn’t say that we’re arguing any more or less than we were before we got married, but the disagreements we do have are the same ones we keep re-hashing over and over, which is wearing on both of us. No advice, only sympathy!

      • Jo

        Sometimes this has been our motivation to figure shit out – OH MY GOD we’re having the same fight again!?!?! And then it’s like, dude, we gotta sit down and break this cycle.

    • I’ve found my first year of marriage very, very rough thus far. We lived together before we got married, so it’s not because we were adjusting to a new routine. I think for me, like for the writer of this article, It’s the binding fear of forever, the feeling of looking down a tunnel wondering if this is what the rest of my life is going to be like. And I feel worn out by all the arguments.

      • Helen

        I had that. I was like “what have I done??”

        Even wrote this here blog about it: http://apracticalwedding.com/2014/07/marriage-and-the-fear-of-forever/

      • EF

        the first year suuuuucked for us, and basically culminated in me tearfully sitting on a parkbench mid winter on the phone to a friend saying ‘i just don’t know…’
        but things have gotten better. and i agree with above statements, that sometimes things have to be really bad before they can improve.

        I really, really get what you say about the fear of what things will always be like, because that’s *always* my fear too. i think particularly in that first year, we’re told it’s supposed to be blissful and shiny, but that’s not just the case for lots and lots of people! reading a comment on year a few months ago, where someone had written a blog about mentioning divorce in their first year of marriage, that just letting that out let out some pressure and also let them focus on what was important, made a huge difference to me. wish i could find the link for you!

        anyway, best of luck. just know you’re not alone.

    • Teresa

      I think it is totally normal. For us, we weren’t even fighting, we just stopped touching. Like, we were thrilled about being married, but also super weirded out by the fact that we were now legally bound and what that meant for us and our relationship and our future. Sometimes it manifested itself into stupid fights, but mostly, it was just distance. My advice is to acknowledge it and talk about it. You could say that you’re kind of bummed that the honeymoon period seems to be over already and see how your partner feels about it. Maybe they feel the same, maybe they did not realize that this was happening. Talk about your expectations and make a plan for how you want to move forward. What would make you feel like newlyweds? Maybe you go on more dates or make it a point to make out more or something, but acknowledging it out in the open really helps!

  • Violet

    Fantastic post.

    I wish it weren’t so, but I think lots of couples have to experience the real emotional knock-down drag-out fights and (sometimes long) dark periods to then be able to step back and say, “K, this is not working; let’s try something else.” I’m sure some are enlightened enough not to need to live through those experiences, but we are not one of those couples, apparently!

    We’re really pretty good now about remembering we’re “in this together” during fights. Practically speaking, that tends to mean one of us remembers as things are getting heated to say, “Hey, I love you, you know that, right?” or “Can I sit next to you on the couch?” That usually softens the fear in the other person enough to calm things down. And I totally agree with OP that a lot of this stuff is fear-based. What if she doesn’t love me as much as I love her? What if he’s made me a worse version of myself? Oh boy, been there.

    We humans love patterns, and a linear one tells a great story. But our relationship has not started at one spot and steadily increased. We’ve gone through great periods and dark periods. As for our pattern, now we know that we’re usually better when we have an external goal or problem to conquer- for us, lack of clear direction breeds unhappiness, which we take out on the other. Now it just doesn’t seem as worth it to tear each other down during an argument when frankly, we know we’ll be on an up at some point in the future.

    • Helen

      Totally agree, Violet. There are even studies to back you up. Apparently the WAY couples fight is a bigger indicator of success than how much they fight: Those softening words, how much people touch, whether one partner is dismissive of the other all comes in to it.

  • Being able to look at problems with more than one perspective is invaluable. Once this happens irrationality tends to fade and a peaceful environment can bloom if nourished. I’m not officially married but we’ve lived together 8 years through things that would send any other person running full speed… and we are both stronger and better people because of these experiences and subsequent growth.

  • Jo

    Part of what you touched on, and what the title suggests, is the reality that we all have wounds and baggage that we bring into our relationships. And if we can recognize that, and OWN it, then we can use marriage as this beautiful safe space to tend those wounds, and unpack that baggage, with someone who is committed to you and loves you and wants the best for you. But the first step is realizing that those fights are about deeper things, and that being someone’s committed partner gives you great responsibility in your words and actions because you can hurt them big time. If you can look at your partner when they are being ridiculous or frustrating and see how this is part of their bigger struggle, you can start to think of ways to help them move forward down the path. And that seems like the best gift you can give someone – a true companion on the journey of life.

  • Anon today

    This really resonated with me. I keep reminding myself that the first year of marriage is hard and lots of people go through this. But I often can’t stand him, to the point of not being able to tolerate being in the same room as him. But I have bipolar, so I’m sure I’m the problem, not him, which leads to even more self-loathing. Thanks for this piece, I hope we get there soon.

  • Kelsey

    Thanks for this post. Since getting engaged I’ve put a lot more pressure on our relationship. What used to be excusable as ‘boyfriend’ behavior is not longer permissible for my ‘future husband.’ My expectations seemed to change after the engagement, and I would take small disagreements or actions and project them onto the rest of our lives together.

    “I loved him to the core. I knew who he was. I knew how he was hurting. I knew his restlessness, his fierce commitment, his exhaustion, his giving up, his needing home, his needing so much that he didn’t know how to ask for.”

    This part of your post was especially moving to me — I am not a religious person, but I am finding that I need to trust in our love and have faith in times of darkness. That when we can’t find ways to communicate our hurt that there is a deeper, stronger, intangible connection to lean into.

  • EH

    This is an amazing testimony! Thank you for sharing. I could relate to so much of this… these very fears feel so shameful, there’s no one I’ve been able to talk with about them. Thank you for writing.

  • RageFace

    Oh wow, I really REALLY needed this! :'(
    Mr Rage and I are soon to be engaged (the ring is being made as we speak!) and suddenly I am filled with panic because we are in a very bad space in our relationship right now due to all the external stress we are facing right now :( All I ever see are people around us blissfully happy and without a care in the world and it hurts feeling like we are the only ones with problems and going through difficult times :(

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