Many years ago, I (Richard) was on a plane and happened to be sitting by a distinguished-looking fellow who told me that he had been a marriage counselor in England for more than 40 years. He mentioned that during all that time, he had discovered only three kinds of marriage that were completely conflict-free.
Interested, I grabbed my pencil and notebook and asked him what they were.
“The first kind of conflict-free marriage is one in which one of the two parties is totally dominant and domineering, and the other is such a doormat that there is never any disagreement," I remember him saying. "The one just calls all the shots and makes all the decisions, and the other one just goes along.”
Still, I had hopes for the other two.
“The second kind of conflict-free marriage is getting much more common today,” he said. “It is where two people have a kind of marriage of convenience, but they live such separate lives, have such separate careers and schedules, that they really don’t have anything in common to disagree on or have conflict over.”
By that point, I couldn’t wait to hear what the third type would be.
"The third kind of conflict-free marriage is where either the husband or the wife is dead.”
He obviously had a droll, British sense of humor, because he said it with a straight face.
I didn’t know what to say, so I just stared at him. He then hammered home his point.
“I mean it,” he said. "In all my years of marriage counseling, those are the only three kinds of marriage where there is never a conflict or an argument. So unless you want one of those, you better have some other way of measuring your marriage than some kind of idealistic notion of always agreeing with each other.”
We have thought a lot and written about that little conversation over the years. We have come to the conclusion that the man was right. In fact, we have come to the conclusion that the best way to measure a marriage is not how or how often there is disagreement, but rather how those differences are resolved and how much is learned from them.
As some good friends of ours say, "communication breakdowns can bring communication breakthroughs." Of course, “can” is the operative word. It takes real effort to turn differences into synergy.
But whatever age you are, and whatever age your marriage is, don’t be discouraged or dismayed by your occasional disagreements. We often think of a great and wise neighbor of ours (his name was LeGrand Richards, for those who may remember him) who was 95 years old when we asked him the secret to his longevity. He thought for a moment and then said, “Well, way back nearly 70 years ago when my wife and I got married, we made a solemn pledge that we would never fight or argue within the walls of our home.”
That was interesting, but we thought he had missed our question. But then, with a twinkle in his eye, he continued, “That’s how I’ve lived so long — spent so much time in the out of doors!”
So instead of worrying about disagreeing, worry about resolving differences positively. And instead of worrying if your children see you disagreeing (hopefully not violently or angrily), just be sure they see you resolving things and making up.
It’s actually a problem when children think their parents never argue or differ on anything because it gives them unrealistic expectations for their marriages. It’s much better for them to know that their parents are each individuals and that they sometimes differ — but that they always work things out and learn together.
For more on how to measure your marriage, see our YouTube video.