Even after being married for 30 years, I vividly remember our first argument after my husband and I were married. It was intense, and to be honest, it scared me. In my mind, I thought, "Wait, we are happy and we love each other, but happy couples don't argue, do they?"
I wish I knew then what I know now: Happy couples do argue. In fact, they actually argue about the very same things unhappy couples argue about: money, children, in-laws and intimacy.
Amy Rauer, associate professor of child and family studies and director of the Relationships and Development Lab at the University of Tennessee, along with three colleagues — Allen Sabey at Northwestern University, Christine Proulx at University of Mississippi and Brenda Volling at University of Michigan — looked at two sets of couples who described themselves as happily married. One group had been married an average of nine years, and the other group had been married an average of 42 years.
Couples were asked to rank the issues they tended to argue about from most to least serious. Intimacy, leisure, household chores, communication and money were among the most serious, as was health for older couples. Jealousy, religion and family fell on the least serious end of the spectrum.
As researchers observed couples in the midst of trying to resolve an issue, they found that these couples focused on the issues with clearer solutions such as division of household chores or how to spend leisure time. The couples rarely chose to argue about issues that were more difficult to resolve, which Rauer suggests could be one of the keys to their marital success.
"Focusing on the perpetual, more difficult to solve problems may undermine partners' confidence in the relationship," Rauer says.
The researchers found that longer-married couples reported fewer serious issues and argued less overall, which is consistent with previous research suggesting that older partners' perceptions of spending less time with each other may lead them to prioritize their marriage and decide some issues are not worth arguing about.
When it comes to not discussing the more difficult issues such as health and intimacy, researchers said that part of the challenge could be that spouses believed talking about it might make the partner believe they were challenging their competence or it would make the spouse feel vulnerable or embarrassed, which could result in more conflict.
"Since these issues tend to be more difficult to resolve, they are more likely to lead to less marital happiness or the dissolution of the relationship, especially if couples have not banked up any previous successes solving other marital issues," Rauer says. "If couples feel that they can work together to resolve their issues, it may give them the confidence to move on to tackling the more difficult issues."
There are several really useful takeaways from this study.
* Learn to choose your battles matters. Early on, it might be a little more difficult to discern what is a mountain and what is a molehill. Some of this can happen through conversation, and some will happen through experience. The most important thing is to focus on the issue and not point the proverbial finger at your spouse.
* Differentiate between issues that truly need resolution versus those that can be set aside for the time being. Sometimes timing or taking time to process can make all the difference, and there are some challenging issues that really do require an amount of simmering on to figure out what you think before you can even talk about a helpful resolution. Plenty of long-married couples could tell you that sometimes there is no quick fix. It may help to talk and think, then repeat the process over time in order to solve certain problems well.
* Seek to be solution-oriented. Clearly, couples who focused on working together to find a solution seemed to be happier in their relationship. Also, working as a team to find solutions for the less-challenging issues builds confidence that is helpful when tackling more complicated issues.
No matter what stage of marriage you are in, there will always be something to argue about. Remember: Your spouse is not the enemy. Choosing the issues you will focus on matters, and making some intentional decisions together about how you will engage around those issues will impact your marital happiness.
Even after 30 years of marriage, obviously there are issues that still arise. We have learned over time that many of the issues we spent a lot of time and energy on were molehills. Ultimately, we started asking ourselves, "Is this something that will matter a month from now or six months from now?" If the answer was yes, we began to problem-solve together. If the answer was no, we stopped letting it distract us from what really mattered: our marriage.
Julie Baumgardner is the president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at email@example.com.