Why I Like to Fight with My Wife

A healthy marriage should look a lot like the Stanley Cup Finals. This is what I mean by that…

marital conflict

Photo Credit: clydeorama via Compfight cc

Last month, as my oldest son and I watched the Chicago Blackhawks win game six of the Stanley Cup Finals, he pointed out something a little startling during the post-game on-ice celebration. In the 1990s, when it was the Bulls bringing championships to Chicago, at the final buzzer, their defeated opponent would immediately sprint for the locker room, hiding from the victors and their joy.

But last month, the defeated Tampa Bay Lightning did no such thing.

They waited patiently, for many minutes, as the Blackhawks celebrated together. Then, both sets of men lined up, as they’ve been doing since they were little boys, and they slowly moved past each other, giving handshakes and hugs and warm words of affirmation.

Although the teams had been in conflict for seven very intense games, there was a palpable sense of unity, as if both teams were part of something bigger than a contest, part of a great tradition called hockey, part of a mutual admiration for each other and a mutual respect for a game they are all indebted to. As I watched, I knew the post-game handshake was revealing something essential about conflict:

Conflict isn’t meant to be won; it’s meant to make us one.

Don’t Do Away With Conflict; Do Away With This

My goal as a marital therapist is not to help couples stop fighting. Conflict itself isn’t toxic to relationships. The elephant in the room is. The unspoken thing. The thing we avoid because we think the thing to avoid is conflict. Conflict is essential to relationships, and it’s essential to marriage.

My goal as a marital therapist is to help couples fight without ego.

Because it is the ego within our conflict that makes it destructive rather than redemptive, wounding instead of healing, brutal instead of beautiful. The ego is the presence within us that says the other side is always wrong, losing is always bad, and we must win at all costs. It’s what makes it hard for me to admit I’ve made a mistake. It’s why I bristle at legitimate criticism.

It makes conflict a minefield for my opponent, er, wife.

For years, I didn’t know conflict could happen without ego, so I assumed the only sane thing to do was to avoid conflict altogether. I’m not alone. The majority of couples I see in therapy don’t come in because they’ve been fighting like cats and dogs. They come in because they’ve been fighting like ships in the night, which is to say, not at all, passing by each other in silence, never addressing the real differences and divisions in their relationship.

But once the ego dissolves a bit and conflict is waged in the language of our lovely souls, you realize conflict is essential to intimacy and harmony and the very fiber of caring and commitment and community. Which is why, now, I tell couples if you want to save your marriage, don’t silence your conflict, silence your ego.

Leave Us In Peace to Fight

There’s an ancient Jewish parable that goes something like this:

Two rabbis have been arguing over the same verse in the Torah for more than two decades. Every afternoon, they retire to a nearby park and resume the debate. Finally, one afternoon, God becomes so annoyed by the endless discussion that he parts the clouds and a great booming voice declares from the sky, “I will tell you what the verse means.” The rabbis look at each other and then turn toward the voice, thundering back in unison, “Why would you end our conversation? Leave us in peace to debate it!” The clouds close and God returns to the heavens, pleased, I think, that the rabbis have embraced the true purpose of conflict.

Conflict need not drive us apart; in fact, it is meant to bring us together.

When Warring Becomes One-ing

Somewhere at the center of each of us is a soul that doesn’t fight fair.

It fights even better than fair.

It fights with a fierce love. Like two rabbis, it goes to the park every afternoon for conflict that feels more like communion. Like two hockey teams, it lines up at the end of the contest for handshakes and hugs. It fights with its arms so wide open it makes space for all people to come together. If it fights for anything, it’s to make the world a more beautiful place.

Conflict in marriage will never disappear. Nor should it. But extract the ego from it, and you are left with two people, dedicating their lives to wrestling out this one fleeting existence together. And then, at the end of the day, lining up for healing hugs and warm words. This might even be the purpose of marriage: a training ground for fighting with our souls rather than our egos.

In this sense, the world desperately needs the institution of marriage.

The Jewish word for peace is shalom. It means wholeness and harmony. But shalom is not what happens when conflict is finally settled; shalom is what happens in the midst of conflict, when egos fade and the struggle becomes something that forms two into one. Shalom is what happens when our warring becomes a kind of one-ing. In our marriages. And in our world.

That’s why marriage should look like the Stanley Cup Finals.

And that’s why I like to fight with my wife.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Next Post: Dear Parent, Cut Yourself Some Slack

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Patricia

    Wow Kelly, as a member of a 39 year marriage this piece resonates with me. We do need marriage in the world and a safe place to expressive deepest joys and hurts as well as a place to fight/ discuss as the rabbis did. My marriage provides that for me. In this fast paced world where we switch out phones, etc. so frequently I worry for the future of long term commitments and the beauty they add, including the fighting, to one’s life. Keep on fighting with your wife, Kelly! You will find beauty in your relationship in future years you could never imagine.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks for this, Patricia, and may you continue to fight with and for love, too!

  • Chris Weldon

    Do women recover to shake hands after the match as quickly and easily as men typically do? That hasn’t been my experience…

    • Laura

      Excellent point Chris, no, they don’t. An article written by a man to rabbis.

      • Chris Weldon

        Thanks, Laura. The point was actually more of a question to Dr. Flanagan and the community. Dr. Flanagan is obviously speaking from a male perspective and personal experience, but I also know he has heard from thousands of individuals and couples, so I was posing the question of whether, in his experience, as different from mine, he found my observation to be true. Thanks for your feedback!

    • Cyndi Goodwin McDonald

      I had to be taught to shake hands after the (soccer) game. In turn I forced my boys to shake hands and in effect say I’m committed to something higher than my win, good sportsmanship. It takes practice to shake off a loss and still feel good about playing. How to fight within a marriage and both parties keep the relationship the higher priority is also, I hope, teachable. And worthy of practice.

      • Chris Weldon

        I love what you say there about it taking practice to shake it off. And it takes lots of practice for me to check my ego into the boards. Thanks for your feedback!

    • Barefootgirl

      In my personal experience I ‘recover’ ages sooner than my husband. He is terribly wounded after an argument and sometimes takes a day or two before he is able to interact with me again. I firmly believe it’s all in what you experienced/saw your parents do and what you perceive is alright and not alright in a marriage.

      • drkellyflanagan

        I love the conversation this has generated and would be happy to see it continue! For what it’s worth, my two cents: whether you are a woman or a man is probably not as highly correlated with how you recover from conflict as is your particular style of ego functioning. If your ego holds grudges and resentments, for instance, or feels a particular need to protect you from additional wounding, you might have a longer recovery time. How we approach and react to conflict can educate us about how our ego works.

        • Chris Weldon

          Thanks Dr. Flanagan. Reading through the responses has been helpful, to say the least. The male/female responses tend to be generalized and ought not to be, as one person said. We are each who we are based on past, present and our direction for the future. What seems key to me is to make sure I am only trying to control my own actions. And as I said above, it takes lots of practice for me to check my ego into the boards. If I’ve learned anything from your posts, it’s that the whole process, if entered into with good will and respectful behavior, can be very redemptive. Thanks for your feedback!

  • John

    Please guys, do not encourage fight in marriage. Fight in families. Encourage COMMUNICATION instead, and honesty, and courage, and hearts to listen and hands to reach. I know you tried to be realistic and make smart analogies and it is an article well written and with beautiful messages in its essence but still it makes me uncomfortable because it promotes fighting versus talking. I am not a marital counselor, you are the expert here. But cronic fighting can be exhausting and ware great marriages out. And in this I was an expert. Sadly.

    • Patricia

      Excellent point, John! I guess I interpreted the word fight in this instance as communication. However, your point is well taken.

      • drkellyflanagan

        I’m hear both of you! The word “fight” was meant to be interpreted as communication. And good communication at that!

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    When I’ve stopped arguing with someone, it has generally been because I have given up on us being able to see one another’s viewpoint, respect each other’s reasoning, and envision us coming to a mutually agreed upon way that we can move forward together. Because I have my own mind and I am surrounded by people who have their own minds as well, I expect conflict amid the harmony and connection.
    I hope I never stop arguing with my husband; it’d be an awful thing to have given up on finding our common ground in our day-to-day.

    • drkellyflanagan

      It’d be an awful thing to gave given up on finding our common ground. I love that definition of conflict: our ongoing attempt to find common ground. Thank you, Shel.

  • Emily Langan

    Just a quick comment : Hawks won the Stanley Cup in SIX games (not seven). Minor point except for Hawks fans. 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      Oh my, right you are, Emily! Thank you for the correction; it’s no small error!

  • foundmercy

    As the child of parents who never fought, divorcing before their differences could even be deemed “irreconcilable”, and a woman who refused to fight because she was told by marriage counselors and reminded constantly by her (now ex-) husband that her whole purpose in being a wife was to be super-sweet-nice-supportive-cheerful-helper . . . I agree with this article. I don’t like conflict or fighting, but I’m not afraid anymore than any disagreement I have is going to be slapped down as unnecessary negativity. We are individuals. We are going to have differences of opinion and if you are married you will disagree about things that you NEED to reach an agreement about in order to move forward together. It’s vital to anticipate that and even enjoy the moments together that you aren’t totally “in sync”. It reminds you of the other-ness of that person you love, and grows your love as you are challenged to love what you don’t always understand.

    • drkellyflanagan

      It takes great courage to do things differently in the next generation. Found mercy AND courage, I think.

  • Chance

    I think my ego has shrank, both due to getting older, and reading a lot of spiritual books by Peter Rollins (how I found your blog), Rob Bell, Richard Rohr, etc. It would be great if you could write more about the ego in your blog. I am struck by how many friends and family are unable to see their ego because, it takes the form of their god. They think they are humble yet when it comes to their religious views, they become quite opinionated about their interpretation of the Bible. No amount of evidence about the diversity of opinion that exists, the tens of thousands of Protestant sects, or the dozens of English translations that exist, seems to diminish their enthusiasm for their particular understanding of truth. When their ego takes the form of god, it can’t be challenged because, of course, it is God. What techniques do you use, as a psychologist, to help someone get off of their high horse?

    • drkellyflanagan

      Hi Chance, that is a great list of authors, and I’m actually working on some content related to this in my book right now. As a therapist, I’m usually in the fortunate position that the people I work with have already been knocked off that horse. As Rohr says, only great love or great suffering can trigger that. In many ways, it’s out of our control, and it behooves us to not try to control the other ego, probably!

  • collaborative girl

    Depends on the problem. I am now physically disabled and anger surrounds me, hostile tone of voice encompasses his communications to me. He is Greedy abut money & I Encompass Humanity about Life! He has influenced our children in his ways/beliefs, they follow his lead! I need HELP, his Heart is Not of Love for My Health/Well Being, so Now I am His Hostage unable to Physically Independently Leave! This Husband has Swayed All to Follow his Inhumane Lead! I am Trapped in this Nightmare & cry & cry! 13 reports to Fairfax County Police Department! So Now What Do I Do? Continue to Suffer?

    • drkellyflanagan

      I’m sorry to hear about your suffering. In the context of the blog, I cannot give customized advice, but I’d strongly encourage you to seek a counselor who can get to know you and your situation and give you the guidance you need. Best, Kelly

    • Lee Ann Beausejour

      Please contact any local non-denominational church. They should be able to help you. The police dept should be able to tell you how to contact a women’s shelter if you are being mentally or physically abused. You have the right to ask for a female officer to respond to your call. If you are collecting any type of funds from the government, have them sent to an account only in your name. This will give you some independence. But if there is hope of marriage counseling working, please try that. It worked for me.

      • collaborative girl

        Thank You or Your Kind Words for Solutions to Help Me! As a Registered Nurse myself I Always Believe Compassion is a Great Gift to Share with All! Thank You for Your Compassion to Share! Sharing=Caring!!

  • Connie

    I love this post! People would be so much more successful in “winning” an argument – i.e. getting a SOLUTION to something that is obviously bothering both people – if they they weren’t out to purely force their own opinion on someone as the “RIGHT” way. Emphasizing “let’s try for a solution here” totally changes the dimensions of the conversation as well as how people talk to each other. I am fortunate to have been raised this way and it has simplified, saved and improved many relationships in my life. You just have to remember to put the ego on the shelf…and that requires practice. Thanks Kelly! 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      It does require practice, indeed, Connie; probably a lifetime of it! : )

  • Susie

    Intriguing article and perspective ♡Kelly – really appreciate lots about it. We teach using one of Dr ♡Harville Hendrix’s comments –
    “Conflict is growth trying got happen”
    Your comment – “Conflict isn’t meant to be won; it’s meant to make us one….” will be another wisdom to pass on. Thank you.

  • Heather

    I LOVE this! These are the words of my heart. My heart and soul recognized the truth, because it was relayed in kindness and humor. In spite of my husband’s resistance to fight as suggested ( he tends to disappear and withdraw), it is my quest to continue to pursue laying down my ego so that my husband will feel safe and some day willing to engage. Thank you for this. thank you thank you

  • guest

    I agree with John’s comment down the bottom, when the ego shuts up, it is not called a fight any more. A conversation without the ego acting out is not even called communication, it’s called BLISS. Lets try for it and there is going to be no wars nore divorces in store for the generations to come.

  • gw

    Very interesting analogy, intriguing connection between couple relationships and teams who have competing interests but share the same passion. From observing myself and close friends/families, there is often a lag between knowing and practising ‘constructive confrontation’. How do we stay grounded and coherent enough to not let our egos take over? How do we deal with the ‘confrontation alarm’?

  • Tami Hurd

    I’d like to see a post about how to learn to leave your ego behind. What if a spouse is never able to change from their commuted position?

  • William Bennett

    Hmm, as a longtime hockey player, and someone who had been married for 17 years, I really enjoyed this analogy.

    It’s funny – I have never been an advocate for fighting in hockey (well, ahem, at least after my teen years) – I’d much rather watch the beauty, grace, finesse and power of the game, and play it myself that way – and I have cringed at those who were disappointed that the game was boring, and when asked why the person would respond, “Well, there weren’t any fights.” I thought this was always a juvenile mindset. And then I would ask, “But how was the game?” Response: “Oh yeah, well that was exciting – but I wish there were more fights… at least one.” Ugh!

    Playing in men’s league, I also have seen those clearly lacking in skill, but they have brawn, and gravitate to the game because of the sole opportunity to flex their fighting muscles, their fists, swinging their sticks – the violence – rather than focus on the game. And, I have been on the receiving end of those wishing to fight and those who have taken cheap shots at me, and have been permanently injured by a few of these cheap shots. It is something that really turns me off about the game and the mindset. But, I have to say, at least the fighting was always the fairest of the two – you knew it was coming, you knew what to expect and you knew how to handle yourself.

    When ice hockey originally was created as a game though, I do believe that fighting was not one of the ways to play the game and was never intended as a part of the game. So, with my angst-filled teen years well behind me, as an adult, I have always been more on the side of removing the fighting – college has banned it, and the game is all well and good and has not suffered in the least. Other levels do not allow it – having stiff penalties – and they too have much fan base and the game is also well and good without the fisticuffs. However, the argument and the fear, worry and concern – at least at the professional NHL level – is if fighting is completely removed, then the dangerous, cheap shots will increase. The ones where players sneak up behind each other to swing their hockey stick like a baseball bat and the opposing player’s head the baseball! In fact, there have been incidences even at the lower levels – like high school – that have left players severely crippled and even paralyzed. It is terribly tragic. And then the advocates of fighting make their point and argument – that this was all the more reason to allow fighting as an outlet for aggression in order to curb malicious cheap shots. At least fighting – the majority of it – occurs between two players who both choose to engage each other face to face, while the random, sneaky and malicious cheap shot has a whole other intention behind it – to maim, hurt and injure. They have a point. Which brings us back to relationship and marriage…

    Perhaps the same can be true for marriages – when two people get married, I don’t think their intention is to fight or have conflict – that they isn’t a part written into the game. But that is unrealistic, isn’t it? Setting us up for complete failure at best, and “cheap shots” at worst leading to perhaps the inevitable – separation. The “cheap shots” are far worse and far damaging – days, months, years of holding in pent up frustration and anger – rather than the healthy outlet of two people communicating their conflicts and dealing with them as fair as can be…

    Just remember to drop the gloves first!