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The Difference Between a Disagreement and a Fight

You ask for something. Your husband or wife says no or asks for something different. This is a disagreement. A disagreement may actually be a good thing.

So what turns a disagreement into a fight? You demand, pout, withdraw affection, insinuate, or put forth perfectly rational arguments that result in your mate demaning, pouting, insinuating or taking up sides against you in a debate. Unless the two of you both enjoy the adrenalin rush and makeup sex, a fight is probably bad for you, your mate, and your marriage. Research suggests you will need to interact positively and as intensely around five times to undo the damage.

Just going along with your spouse and forgetting your own wants or needs does not result in a better outcome, unless the disagreement is so minor you will not remember it tomorrow.

How Can a Disagreement be a Good Thing?

If you pursue a Third Alternative, an option each of you finds at least as pleasing as the one your mate turned down, you get two huge benefits.

The first benefit comes from eliminating the fear any disagreement triggers. Most of us carry some fear of being abandoned if we disappoint our mates or of losing our freedom to be ourselves in order to get the approval we seek from our mates. The fear fades when we hear, "I want this, but I also want you to have what you want, and I will work with you to get both."

The second benefit comes from discovering something we did not know would delight us. It comes from combining our strengths with our spouse's strengths to discover how to have both when we had lived our lives until know believing we could have only one or the other.

We learn from checking our thoughts to figure out what makes us want a particular experience, whether it's a quiet Saturday at home, a family gathering, a trip to the lake, or a round of golf, and what we dislike about the other option for this time. We learn from exploring our mate's thoughts, too. We learn how different our pictures of the same phrase can be. We learn what happened in the past to associate fear or disgust with any of them.

As we brainstorm ways to get what both of us seek and protect our mate from fear or disgust, we stretch our creative muscles. If we start hot-dogging to loosen up our wild ideas, we laugh and play together, growing closer and beginning to see things through lenses unlike any we have used before. We reveal ourselves and we see our mates more clearly. We find new respect for each other and for ourselves.

Is There a List of Third Alternatives?

There can be no list. The Third Alternative depends on the two of you. There is no obvious better choice until we know what makes the first two choices good or bad for each of you. Is golf your mate's first choice for the exercise, for the camaraderie with others who enjoy playing, for the time to reflect on life between moments of intense concentration, to shift from parent to adult roles for a while, or to qualify for some important accolade?

When I sought a winter equivalent for sailing my little dinghy on the lake, I expected to hear skiing. But as I laid out what brings me joy in sailing, with friends because I was a new widow then, two said, "I get those from playing the piano." So I tried it. It gave me a new appreciation for those who find sailing unenjoyable because the many simultaneous tasks and problems to solve never come together to take them into flow or playfulness. I switched to dancing. I learned a lot about myself and I learned to appreciate a lot more about others' piano playing.

When I disagree with my husband, I jump the net to his side. Otherwise, we could spend days arguing for our first ideas and just making each other miserable. Once I am on his side of the net, we stop lobbing the ball back and forth. I learn. I grow. And I find myself astounded to discover new sources of enjoyment, new ways of living.

If you find yourself in the middle of a fight today, or at the start of a disagreement, jump the net. Offer to make your husband or wife happy, and yourself, too.

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Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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