A whopping 69 percent of marital problems never get solved, according to relationship expert John Gottman, Ph.D. If you’re a social butterfly and he’s a homebody, that’s not likely to change, so there’s no sense in bickering about it. But some fights are worth having because they can save your marriage. “Fights are important escape valves for feelings and values,” says April Masini, relationship expert and author of Romantic Date Ideas. Just make sure you use these disagreements to deepen your bond, without blowing up or disengaging. Duana Welch, Ph.D., relationship science expert and author of Love Factually, explains, “The deadliest thing is to disconnect without discussing what’s really bothering you.”
Why you’re always the one to bring up the issues
Gottman found that women bring up the problems in heterosexual relationships 80 percent of the time. While men can say ladies complain a lot, we’re actually doing very important work. “Women are like relationship mechanics,” says Welch. “If you don’t have someone fine-tuning the engine, it probably won’t last.” Conflicts are necessary to develop true intimacy. “If you don’t talk about it, you don’t get closer,” say Don and Carrie Cole, Master Certified Gottman Therapists and founders of The Center for Relationship Wellness. How you bring up the issues really matters. “If the first three minutes of a conflict discussion are harsh, it will fail most of the time,” says Carrie Cole. In fact, Gottman found that couples who ultimately divorce start discussions with significantly more negativity and criticism than couples who stayed together. So make sure you have a soft start—state the facts and how you feel—and don’t attack your partner.
How your relationship will evolve after the baby
We all know the transition to parenthood can be a bumpy one. Unfortunately, 67 percent of couples experience a sudden and steep drop in satisfaction in the first three years of their new baby’s life, according to Gottman. What’s the secret sauce for the happy couples that remain? They don’t constantly battle over how to diaper the baby or dwell on the loss of their previous lives. Content couples embrace their new family unit and work together for the better of all involved. Sure, you’re going to have different opinions on how to raise kids, but that doesn’t mean your partner is always wrong. Welch says, the rule of thumb for any disagreement should be whether what the other is doing is dangerous. “If not, express your preference, then back off,” she says.
Your spending habits
“Are you crazy? We can’t afford that!” to “You’re such a tightwad!” are unproductive ways to duel over dollars. ” Money is powerfully symbolic of many things—self worth, values, and a sense of security,” say Bob and Judith Wright, relationship experts, authors of The Heart of the Fight, and co-founders of The Wright Foundation. “How you spend your cash can stem from a desire to be appreciated, socially affirmed, or loved.” Instead of saying, “All you want to do is spend money!” or “You’re no fun—I just want a few nice things!” try to get to the bottom of each other’s underlying desires and compromise in ways that honor both, say the Coles. “Proactively put out your judgments and fears,” say the Wrights. “Then focus on honing a strategy for the future.”
How much cleaning will make you both happy
Both husbands and wives report more satisfying sex lives in homes where the husband does his share of the housework. So what exactly is the right amount? It differs from couple to couple, but according to 40 years of Gottman research, it comes down to what you think is fair. “If he’s doing housework cheerfully and unasked, he’s probably golden,” says Welch. So spell out what you want him to handle and don’t forget to feel the heat together after the kitchen is clean.
The squabble over why you never have fun together anymore
With packed calendars, it’s so easy to get caught up in the daily grind and make your marriage about administrating a household. But, as the famous saying goes, laughter is the shortest distance between two people, so don’t forget to fight for being pals and prioritize having good times together. Date nights are great, but not always doable. Greg Smalley, VP of Marriage Ministries at Focus on the Family and author of Fight Your Way to a Better Marriage, recommends taking advantage of daily moments, like leaving for the day or going to bed. “Say something encouraging as he heads out the door (‘you’re going to rock that meeting!’), says Smalley. “Or express one thing you’re thankful for each night (‘you cooked an awesome dinner tonight’). As he closes his eyes, that’ll be the last thing he hears from you.” Silly texts and sexy Snapchats are other easy ways to infuse a little fun and remind each other that you’re friends first.
The ol’ should we have sex tonight debate
Differences in sex drives are hard not to take personally. “If he wants sex more than you do, he’s going to feel perpetually rejected,” says Welch. “And you might feel used for your body.” Instead of arguing whether you should have sex tonight, bring up the idea that it’s okay to enjoy a little “self love.” That way, Welch says, each can scratch their own itch, and you can come together when you’re both into it. Masturbation is the safest tool to use in this situation, but make sure you still prioritize sex together, rather than apart.
Why your MIL can’t come over unannounced
While your mother-in-law may think she’s helping by, um, inviting herself over, appropriate boundaries need to be established. If your mother-in-law is intrusive and disrespectful, your husband needs to put her in her place, says Welch. He can politely tell her that he appreciates her desire to help, but if there’s a side to take, it’s going to be with his spouse. “If you think his mother has a higher place in his priorities than you, divorce is likely,” says Welch. “He needs to, respectfully but firmly, man up to his mom.”
Who should be telling the stepkids to clean their rooms
You and your husband chose each other, but any kids from previous relationships have to go along for the ride. It takes time to earn trust and love, and yelling over messy rooms probably isn’t the way to warm their hearts. Instead, Welch recommends disciplining behind the scenes. When there’s trouble with the stepkids, approach your spouse privately and calmly, says Welch. The biological parent should step in and deal with the issue. The non-biological parent can provide support in the background. “It’s to everyone’s advantage to be kind and gentle to the child who did not choose this marriage,” says Welch.
Why you got into a fight in the first place
You had a big blowout and it wasn’t pretty. Instead of trying to sweep it under the rug, address why you had that disagreement. Discuss what went wrong, how each of you felt, and how to prevent such a negative outcome the next time, say the Coles. This isn’t about opening the battle back up, but understanding each other and moving forward together. “Never go back into a bad moment,” says Carrie Cole. “Instead, try to uncover the importance and meaning of the underlying conflict.” Knowing why he’s doing what he’s doing will help you feel closer. The aftermath of a fight can be one of the most productive ways to fight for your marriage.