Anticipating Likely "War Zones" Is Best Strategy for a Happy Marriage

October 2007

Fighting does not breed love, but couples are destined to fight.

"Some issues have been fought over for most of our recorded civilization, and yet most couples work through them as if they were brand new," says Gemma B. Allen, a family law attorney for 25 years and a partner in the Chicago law firm of Ladden & Allen, Chartered.

In today's world, there are three fights that occur repeatedly, and the battling words and emotional arrows used in those arguments can fatally wound a marriage, she states. Though it is best to resolve disputes before they erupt, it doesn't always happen that way.

The first predictable battleground is: Where do we spend the holidays? Just asking the question raises the spectrum of infantry lines being drawn. When a couple marries, each person assumes that they will continue to celebrate the holidays at the home where he or she was raised.

"Whether you loved it or hated it, it's 'home,'" she says. "On a certain unconscious level, it is where you expect to spend the holidays. But in a marriage, you live with someone who has the same feelings toward a different place and cast of characters."

Renee and Joshua both came from the East Coast—just different states—he from Vermont and she from New York. When they married and moved to Chicago, he dreamt of Christmas in a snow-covered family owned lodge with fireplaces and hot toddies; she looked forward to the family reunion Christmas holiday brunch at The Plaza. They could not be two places at once, so someone had to win and someone had to lose. The danger of "winning" the battle of where to spend the holidays is that it can be a very expensive "victory."

Most people, including Renee and Joshua, know how to "win" this battle—use fighting words designed to wound—the other person's dad is a drunk, their mother is a terrible hostess, a sibling is "perverted," your family "just does not like me" and other demeaning comments. The problem is when hurtful remarks are made about the other person's family of origin (even if both partners believe the comments are true), it can lead to the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage.

"The solution for Renee and Joshua was simple and pretty obvious," says Allen. "Divide the holidays each year or alternate them annually. It's not perfect but it's bloodless," she says.

The second predictable fight takes place on the home front and how it is decorated. This plays out through the divisions of space within the home – his, hers and ours; through decisions made in how the home is decorated and furnished, and finally, where the couple actually chooses to live.

Our mobile society, with its two career couples, has created a world of new relationship problems, says Allen. Executive recruiters now know that both partners in a marriage have to be convinced that a move is worth it—for both of their careers and for all the members of their family.

Elyssa and Tom were both high powered investment planners in New York. He took a promotion in money and title which included a move to San Francisco, and Elyssa, who was pregnant at the time, never looked back. However, two children and five years later she got an oh-so-tempting job offer in Chicago. Now what?

Solutions to the "where we live" question include selecting the place which will cause the least emotional pain to most of the family members and providing "make-up" time in the "place of the heart" location for whichever party feels displaced. The approach to these battles must include a chapter by chapter analysis about a couple's life together ("we'll live here for now, but later, we'll move there later").

Location fights are ones where a couple may benefit from professional help, Allen believes. It's hard enough to know and facilitate your own goals and life's journey, let alone those of your beloved.

The third type of predictable fight? Disagreements over how the marital money is spent. There is nothing more dangerous to a marriage or committed relationship than two people who do not understand their own money issues or who do not communicate well about their differences with regards to money. Sadly, the very first time couples often communicate about money is through their respective divorce attorneys, according to Allen.

Her advice? Don't keep financial secrets from each other. Assess how you spend the marital money by creating a balance sheet covering the last 12 months. And recognize the fact that women have more financial fear than men. The fear is culturally inbred, but it's curable. We all can become financially literate through education and coaching.

"A couple needs to face their financial situation as a team," she says. "If there's a shortfall, it can be tackled by bringing in more money or spending less. If there's an excess, they should discuss savings and investment goals. They may not always agree, but they will be communicating their hopes and dreams for the future."

Other battlegrounds include the frequency of sex, how to raise the children and the amount of overtime work. All of these potential war zones are emotionally loaded and "hot." That is a good reason to try to see these predictable fights coming and head them off with some creative problem solving, says Allen. Differences become irreconcilable only if they are not thoughtfully and respectfully approached. Anticipating the likely war zones and dealing with them is the best strategy for saving a marriage and lifting the spirits of both people who want to live happily in the marriage.

Ladden & Allen is located at 55 West Monroe Street, Suite 3950, in Chicago, IL 60603, and can be reached at (312) 853-3000.


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