As told to Rosa Silverman for The Telegraph Family, 8th of February 2022
Some may have huge blazing rows on a weekly basis, others may bicker quietly – either way, communication is the heart of the matter
Despite my best efforts, my husband and I are not prone to explosive stand-up rows. Given the chance, I would gladly throw myself into them – but he’s just not that way inclined. Our only recurring heated argument relates, quite laughably, to England’s historic county system and the proper names for various places.
Our lack of quarrels either says something really good about the state of our marriage – or something really bad.
This week, a new survey claims that the recipe for a happy marriage includes six meaningful conversations, three long walks, and two barnstorming rows every month.
Given that our tally of barnstorming rows is close to zero, I wonder if I should be worried.
But according to relationship experts, it’s not the style of the row that necessarily matters: it’s being able to have an outlet for discussing and resolving problems, whatever form that takes.
“It’s very necessary to communicate how you feel,” says Jean-Claude Chalmet, psychotherapist and founder of The Place Retreats, Bali.
“For some people it works just discussing [problems] with each other; for some having mighty rows [works], as long as people communicate.”
So our marriage isn’t doomed because it lacks blazing rows, but clearly, they have their value – for some couples at least. “Some people like good rows because very often there’s good make-up sex afterwards, so there’s a reward for them,” says Chalmet.
“They have strayed so far out of their comfort zone that they need to reconnect and the sex is a good way [to do that].”
Still, while shouting can feel cathartic, making your point in a calmer fashion gives you a better chance of being heard, he suggests. “People are more likely to listen to someone who’s not screaming blue murder at them,” he reasons.
“I’ve always said to people: ‘Why don’t you discuss during good moments how to say something if you’re annoyed or angry?’ You might just lash out… [but] why not have an agreement about how you’re going to talk to each other?”
Worse than a big row, it seems, is shutting down altogether. If you’re failing to vent your frustrations and hurt, that’s when you should be worried. “Most relationships go wrong because people can’t communicate,” says Chalmet.
Couples who say they never argue may have just made a tacit agreement not to face up to their problems. But not discussing them at all can build resentment and lead to passive-aggression, Chalmet warns.
This is when we start to bicker and, while barnstorming rows can have their uses, bickering is rarely helpful.
“No-one has ever said ‘when my wife bickers at me, that’s when I try and change’,” observes Chalmet drily.
We might think we’re only bickering about small things (the way he drives, or the obviously incorrect way she loads the dishwasher), but these apparently minor causes can often stand in as proxies for deeper frustrations. “Very often what people row about isn’t actually the [underlying] problem,” says Ammanda Major, a counsellor at Relate.
“So arguing about who is going to clean up the cat sick or who is going to put the bin out can be a way of diverting anger and upset into a more trivial matter from something that is quite serious.”
Rather than saying to our partner “can we please talk because I’m feeling really unhappy about something”, it’s easier to have a row because they forgot to buy milk on the way home, she says.
But what about if we’re arguing about really big things instead; politics, say, or religion? (Or the fact he thinks West Yorkshire is not a real county?)
Being poles apart on significant questions shouldn’t by definition be a problem, the experts say; it’s more about how we deal with our differences of opinion.
“If one person is saying ‘you must agree with me’, I’d say: ‘Why is it important your partner agrees with you on something like [politics or religion]?’” says Major.
“For some couples, if you don’t agree with me, that means you don’t love me or trust my judgment when actually it’s just a difference of opinion.”
When it comes to more practical matters, such as how to parent our children or where to live, that’s when listening and compromise has to come in.
Or, as Major puts it, remembering “you can’t get all of what you want all of the time”.
One big no-no, though, is airing your dirty laundry in front of others. Arguing in front of family or friends won’t just make them feel intensely uncomfortable; it is also not healthy for the couple themselves, says Chalmet, who suggests it may happen when someone is feeling hurt and “trying to muster support from the outside”.
Likewise, it’s never appropriate to humiliate your partner in front of other people, cautions Major. “That gets you nowhere.” Far better to find a safe way to hear each other out in private, whether at home or after scheduling a walk to talk things through.
The experts emphasise there is no one size fits all rule when it comes to rowing. The style and frequency of a couple’s arguments will generally depend on what works best for them. But if the “two rows a month” rule sounds somewhat random, there is perhaps a better formula for a happy married life.
According to the Gottman Institute, which takes a research-based approach to relationships, there is a specific ratio that makes love last: if for every negative interaction during conflict, a marriage has five or more positive interactions, then it is likely to remain stable and happy.