When Fr. Angelo Bianchi, a wonderful Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions missionary, married my wife and me, he gave us some bad advice.
Oh, it sounded good at the time. “Don’t ever go to bed angry,” he told us in front of many witnesses.
What my wife and I learned over many years of marriage was just the opposite: When you are angry, go to bed. The odds are, things will look different after a good night’s sleep. And if there is still an argument to be had, it will likely be at a lower volume.
Maybe this advice won’t work for everybody. Maybe I’m the only husband who gets cranky when he’s tired, but I doubt it.
I’ve been thinking about anger and fights lately. We don’t seem to do it very well in our church. We don’t seem to do it very well in our society. Clergy and laity throwing shade. Politicians calling each other names. Our arguments rarely seem truly constructive.
The snark and the bile, the public smackdowns and the passive-aggressive digs remind me more of middle school boys fighting on a playground. The past four years we saw a lot of this, but it certainly didn’t start or end there.
Maybe a few lessons that happily married couples have learned over the years might help.
Like avoid the kitchen sink arguments. That’s when you bring up all the things that really tick you off. You start out arguing about the housework, and you end up arguing about the vacation and the car and the kids and the dog. Don’t try to settle every score, or you won’t settle any.
And while you’re at it, don’t re-litigate all the old fights from days gone by. Keep focused on the matter at hand that needs addressing.
Pay attention to what your spouse is saying rather than just thinking of the quick putdown in response. When nothing else works, try listening.
Always avoid generalizations that begin with “you always” or “you never.” They’re probably not true and certainly not helpful if you really are hoping to win your partner over.
It is particularly helpful to keep the gloves on, which most certainly doesn’t seem to be a rule for politics these days. Savvy spouses know when to shut up and when not to stab at a sore spot with a little dig. It might feel good in the moment, but it almost always comes back to haunt you.
And if the couple is fortunate enough to be parents, always remember who is watching when you argue. On the one hand, it’s not good if you act as if a marriage never has conflict and you suppress your differences.
What you want to do is model for your children how arguments and disagreements can be had without going nuclear, and how to make up after the disagreement is vented. When they are in their own relationships someday, they will thank you for it.
Maybe this advice won’t be that useful in society as a whole these days. A lot of what passes for debate and argument in our public life is really just sound and fury anyway, signifying very little of substance. It’s talk radio. It’s social media. It’s the fury of the self-righteous.
On the other hand, there have got to be adults somewhere who know how to have a civil disagreement, even over very important issues, without bringing the house down on top of them.
Of course, my wife had an alternative solution to handling our marital disputes. “Just admit I’m right,” she said.
Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at [email protected].