The trick to stopping a blazing row ending in divorce: by Britain’s leading couples counsellor, whose revealing quiz will test the strength of your marriage

  • Couples counsellor Andrew G. Marshall has written 19 books on relationships
  • He believes it’s important for couples to understand the style of their arguments
  • He shared a quiz for resolving conflicts that frequently occur in marriage 
  • Andrew recommends nudging instead of nagging your partner into submission 

What’s the best foundation for a long and happy relationship? That you both come from similar backgrounds? That you have a healthy sex life or share interests and hobbies?

All of these are desirable, but they are not the most useful foundation of all. The most important lesson I’ve learned from three decades working as a marital therapist, counselling more than 3,000 clients in the UK and writing 19 books, is that a loving relationship takes skill as well as chemistry. And one of the absolutely fundamental skills you need is an ability to argue well. To disagree without hurting each other. Over and over in my office I see couples who have become frustrated and embittered by long-running disputes. Even the most trivial quarrel, allowed to fester, can bring marriages to the brink of divorce. The more you love someone, the more it hurts when they reject, berate or seem to punish you, even over the stacking of a dishwasher.

Let me be clear: arguing is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s crucial for a healthy relationship. But there are good and bad ways to do it.

Couples counsellor Andrew G. Marshall, revealed how understanding the style of an argument can be used to resolve conflict in marriage (file image)

To find out what your style of argument says about your relationship’s strengths and weaknesses, take the quiz below. Then check what the location of your arguments can tell you — you’ll be surprised by how much. Finally, read my advice on how to resolve some of those issues that most frequently produce conflict in a marriage.

Happy couples know how to argue well, but also know how to ask for what they want without nagging or shouting. Let me show you how . . .

QUIZ: HOW FIERY A COUPLE ARE YOU?

1 You are in the car together and you’re lost, late and tired. What happens next?

a) You sulk and finish the journey in silence.

b) Your partner criticises your map reading and you blame him or her for taking the wrong turning.

c) You ask for directions.

2 Your partner has an irritating habit, such as slurping coffee. What do you do?

a) Sigh. You’ve mentioned it before.

b) Make a sarcastic comment.

c) Ask her or him to wait until the coffee is not so hot.

3 You make an amorous advance in bed, but your partner is not really in the mood and would prefer a cuddle. How do you react?

a) Have a half-hearted cuddle, but privately resolve not to risk rejection in the future.

b) Turn your back and make him or her feel guilty or ensure they know how it feels to be turned down.

c) Enjoy the cuddle, but talk about it the next day and explain how upset you felt.

The relationships expert says expressing anger is important for creating a sense that something needs to change (file image)

4 It’s a hot summer’s day and an attractive man or woman walks past wearing very little. Do you . . .

a) Pretend not to notice as it avoids a nasty row.

b) Check your partner is not ogling them and get upset if she or he looks twice.

c) Tease each other or point out the beautiful stranger’s failings.

5 Your electricity bill is huge. What happens next?

a) Each of you makes a couple of pointed comments over the next few days about lights left on.

b) You accuse each other of being wasteful and raise other bad habits.

c) You agree on a plan for saving energy and money.

6 Which of these do your arguments most closely resemble?

a) An on/off switch. Either one or the other of you wants to talk or is annoyed, but seldom both at the same time.

b) Cat and dog fight. Lots of rough-and-tumble with both sides losing their temper.

c) A debating chamber. Although things can get heated, everybody gets their say.

Andrew advises couples who have high conflict to practice being nice instead of withdrawing or criticising as an automatic response (file image) 

MOSTLY a): Low conflict. The two of you get on well enough and life runs smoothly, but there is very little passion. Sometimes, it can seem that you are more brother and sister than husband and wife.

Don’t panic. It’s possible to get the spark back. Contrary to popular opinion, arguing is good for your relationship. It sorts out what is truly important and creates a sense that something needs to change. Expressing anger, making up and finding a solution is the most intimate thing a couple can do. Stop side-stepping things that irritate you.

MOSTLY b): High conflict. There is fiery passion in your relationship, but is it always positive? Though you are not afraid to let rip, the rows tend to push you into separate corners rather than solving anything.

When you’re upset, the automatic response is to punish — by withdrawing or criticising — and your partner is likely to follow suit. Why not lead by example and do something nice instead? (See the suggestions below.) Before long, your partner will feel better disposed and ready to return the favour. Miracle of miracles, you have set up a positive circle.

MOSTLY c): Medium conflict. You don’t overreact to problems and you don’t ignore them.

Congratulations for finding the middle path. However, be wary, especially if you answered ‘a’ or ‘b’ to some questions: certain topics, or being tired and stressed, can still overwhelm your arguing skills.

Under these circumstances, the home atmosphere can easily turn from happy to dissatisfied. About 30 per cent of couples who seek my help have medium-conflict relationships.

Andrew advises couples who frequently argue in the car to divide up control throughout their relationship to create balance (file image)

WHERE YOU ARGUE

THE CAR: This is the most likely place to have a row, and not just because of back-seat driving and traffic jams. In our busy lives, it’s one of the few extended times we spend with our partners and it’s hard to storm off when arguments get heated.

WHAT THIS TELLS YOU: Arguments in the car are really about who is in charge. Control and power are big themes here. Modern couples like to feel they are equal, but underneath, one half often feels powerless.

SOLVE IT: In successful relationships, control is divided. For example, one will be in charge of money, while the other organises the social life. Draw up a list of domestic and other responsibilities and decide who has the final say on each. If the balance is uneven, discuss which areas can be divvied up better. Always consult your partner in decisions and be careful not to belittle their opinions.

THE KITCHEN: This is mission control and the place couples are most likely to meet at stressful times such as first thing in the morning. The kitchen also throws up plenty of fuel for a row: unwashed dishes, clothes not taken out of the tumble dryer or using the last of the milk.

WHAT THIS TELLS YOU: Do you really feel appreciated? At the bottom of many domestic arguments one or both parties feel taken for granted.

SOLVE IT: Compliments and ‘thank yous’ are really important here. When first courting, we leave each other notes and buy surprise bars of chocolate — don’t stop just because the relationship is established. Next time you tell your partner you love them, say why as well: ‘Because you make a great lasagne’, ‘Because you always make me laugh’ and so on.

Andrew believes it can be beneficial for kids to hear their children discussing disputes, instead of arguing in public away from them (file image)

IN PUBLIC: Many couples discuss controversial subjects in coffee shops and restaurants. They feel it’s harder to lose their tempers in public and hope witnesses will keep them both rational.

WHAT THIS TELLS YOU: For couples who row in public, an argument is often seen as a failure. You try to be understanding and often convince yourself there’s nothing major to be angry about — so why upset the apple cart? However, often a lot of feelings are being repressed.

SOLVE IT: Understand rows are part of a healthy relationship. Letting off steam can be the first step to solving a dispute. If you are going out to discuss issues away from the kids, think again. Hearing parents bring up issues and solve them is the best way for children to learn how to do it themselves.

THE LIVING ROOM: Perhaps the worst place to argue thanks to the screen in the corner. The TV is an ever-present excuse not to engage: ‘Could we talk about this later? I’m watching my programme.’ But TV can be the source of conflict, too, and plot lines can spark submerged issues.

WHAT THIS TELLS YOU: People who argue about issues secondhand — through the plot of a soap opera, for example — are often afraid of speaking their own mind or worry an argument will get out of hand.

SOLVE IT: Own your opinions. Tell your partner what you don’t like about their behaviour directly rather than elliptically: ‘You’re so like them.’ This will stop your partner becoming defensive and make him more likely to hear what you have to say.

The couples consellor suggests nudging rather than nagging, as the concept is gentler than forcing a partner into submission (file image)

STOP NAGGING

Nagging creates a slow poison that seeps through a relationship. Nobody likes to nag and nobody likes to be nagged. So what’s the alternative?

Take this scenario. In theory, you’re both responsible for the laundry, but when the basket is overflowing, you always end up gritting your teeth and doing it while he watches TV.

You’ve tried explaining that you’re not the washing fairy. You nag him. He feels put upon.

He does it for a few days, then he stops again. Nothing changes.

First, bring all the hostility to the surface by asking: ‘How can we resolve this problem?’ Tell him how taken for granted you feel and let him tell you how hounded he feels in return. Listen to him and he’ll be more likely to listen to you. You’ll then be in a position to co-operate and move on . . .

START NUDGING

Rather than nagging, bullying or tricking your partner into submission, try nudging, a concept that comes from politics and means gently pushing people towards certain choices rather than forcing it.

In our scenario, the default is that you put on the washing when the basket is full, and as a result feel like a martyr.

The solution here is to nudge the situation by setting a new, more equal default eg. whoever comes home first puts on the washing. Instead of being ‘a favour’ one half does for the other, it becomes part of the relationship status quo. Reinforce the nudge by thanking him sincerely, not just at the time, but a few days later, too.

Andrew advises looking for things within your relationship that you take for granted about your partner for better understanding (file image)

It’s a nudge rather than a shove when . . .

  • YOU can defend your actions in public, otherwise it is sneaky manipulation.
  • YOUR partner has the freedom to opt out — otherwise it is an order.
  • YOU are up for your partner nudging you back, otherwise you are just a control freak!

SWAP YOUR ROLES

Swap weekends to see what it’s like being them. If you normally take the children swimming, your partner should do it instead. Ditto cleaning the bathroom or balancing the bank account. If he cuts the grass or does the grocery shopping, then you take over.

Try to recreate each other’s weekends as much as possible. The more you swap, the greater the understanding.

Look for things you take for granted and that are so second nature you have never questioned them before. For example, who is responsible for initiating sex. At the end of the weekend, relax and talk about your experiences of being each other, the insights gained and what you might do differently in the future.

5 easy ways to reignite your relationship 

Talk about your day

Instead of big dramatic gestures, which are hard to repeat, try to set up good relationship habits. The most important one is checking in with each other when you return home. A few moments sharing the the day prevents misunderstandings, such as your partner’s bad mood being down to you rather than a demanding boss.

Kiss with your eyes open

When couples arrive in my office with one partner complaining, ‘You’re not the person I thought you were,’ I can almost guarantee they have been kissing with eyes closed and getting lost in their own fantasies. Actually looking at each other when you kiss can be the gateway to more erotic lovemaking.

Andrew recommends going to bed at the same time to increase the chances of making love (file image)

Go to bed at the same time

If you’re seldom awake in bed together, the chances of making love are close to zero. So if you have radically different bedtimes, find a compromise where, for example, your partner turns in a little earlier and you stay up a little longer.

Give in with good grace

Living with someone means having to compromise. Next time you have to attend his boring work do, don’t just grit your teeth, but look for the hidden pleasures. Not only will your partner be grateful, but they’ll go the extra mile for you in return.

Report negative feelings

We’re forever told to express our feelings, but getting things off your chest can often pump up emotions. So instead of showing your feelings, try reporting them instead. By this I mean: ‘I felt angry when you didn’t answer me’ or ‘I was disappointed when you were late,’ rather than snapping, sniping or shouting.

Adapted from The Happy Couple’s Handbook: Powerful Life Hacks For A Successful Relationship by Andrew G. Marshall (£12.35, Marshall Method Publishing) © Andrew G. Marshall 2019. To order a copy, visit andrewgmarshall.com

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