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What Would Kenny Rogers Do?: A guide to better marital communication

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Anyone who has ever heard Kenny Rogers’ most famous song, “The Gambler,” knows the famous lyric:

You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em.
Know when to fold ‘em.
Know when to walk away.
Know when to run.

While I of course wouldn’t put it exactly that way in my sessions, I can appreciate the lesson as it applies to marital communication – pick your battles carefully.

It’s natural for a husband and wife to disagree on certain matters, but the true test is how they confront this moment of impasse. Does every fight need to be an intense verbal assault? Absolutely not. Still, many couples don’t know the right time to confront one another and the right time to table a fight that’s not worth it.

So let’s take a closer look at some helpful guidelines:

When to Engage (“Hold ‘Em”):

• You’re feeling a “little” thing quickly build up to epic proportions.
When this happens rapidly, you’re not being honest with yourself – clearly, it’s not a little thing and needs to be talked about now, not later.

• You have the inkling to bring in a mutual friend to settle an argument.
This isn’t just awkward for your friend, it’s unfair to everyone. When it’s someone like myself, a licensed therapist, bring in a 3rd party. Otherwise, try and solve the situation at hand between the two of you.

You’re making more of a conscious effort to listen.
It’s not easy to listen to our faults or what we view as critiques from others. We rush to interrupt and defend. But remember, your ability to listen intently is a demonstration of giving your spouse respect. Of course you have a point to make – and you’ll get your turn. Wait. Breathe. Count to ten if necessary. But don’t run over your spouse’s sentences with your own.

• You can express how you feel without judging your spouse.
For example, “I became hurt because I need to feel respected for what I do in this household.” It’s harder for a spouse to disagree with that, plus you’re not taking an accusatory tone by saying, “you don’t respect me.” It’s a subtle but important difference.

When to Sideline the Discussion (“Fold ‘Em, Walk Away and Run”):

This doesn’t mean walk away from the marriage but rather that you should walk away from the argument only temporarily. For example:

• You both feel the conversation escalating rapidly beyond a normal “discussion.”
At this point the two of you are ramping up the intensity, so let me give you a phrase to try:

“We do need to talk about this, but I just need to walk away from one hour to calm down. Then I’d like us to come back to this and discuss. Would that be alright with you?”

Not only are you showing respect by asking permission to return to the discussion but you’re showing that the matter is important enough for you to return to very shortly – just remember to follow through and do that.

• You can’t focus on the true matter at hand
without letting your emotion carry you into dangerous territory.

This isn’t easy for most people to do. Which should tell you something about pursuing the fight. If not, a fight can go from the slippery slope of a debate into a nasty argument in seconds if you aren’t careful. If you find yourself preparing your case like a lawyer beforehand, saying, “I’m going to get her good because I remember all those times she did A, B, C and D…” you might make matters a lot worse.

• You want to “win” against your spouse.
The reality? Nobody wins in this situation. It’s not about “winning” anyway. It’s about trying to reach a common understanding for the good of your relationship – you both emerge victorious or you both lose. Even If you have proved your point in a fight, think about the aftermath. When the person you love is miserable, crying and mentally beating themselves up in the wake of your “victory,” it won’t feel like a victory at all.

Just as the referee talks to the boxers before a boxing match about making it a “good, clean fight,” you can do the same with your spouse. If you even decide to fight at all, that is.