Marriage Secret: Fighting Fair

By Miranda Hersey Helin

Sometimes it takes a good fight to learn that conceding can be a good thing.

My first husband and I were once invited to spend a holiday weekend in the mountains with some friends. Things got off to a good start: We sat in our hosts' living room, drinking iced tea while the children played outside.

As we were settling in, my husband looked up and remarked on the cathedral ceiling. The ceiling, which was two stories high, was flat and therefore - to my mind - not cathedral. I suggested that cathedral ceilings had angles and vaults. He disagreed: It was height that mattered. I countered hotly, embarrassed by my husband's denseness in the company of others. Had anyone there ever seen a cathedral with a flat ceiling?

We finally requested an encyclopedia. Our hosts smiled nervously. We weren't invited back. And three years later, we weren't married, either.

I had met my husband when I was 20 (he was 32) and spent 10 years with him while raising our three children. The relationship was never easy, and an accumulation of resentment from petty arguments made compromise more and more difficult.

I was a stay-at-home mom trying to develop my writing career between laundry loads. Arguments with my engineer husband could be about all sorts of things. When I was sure I was right, which was most of the time, I craved vindication. I refused to consider that my spouse's view had some validity. Youthfully headstrong, I had no idea that letting something inconsequential consume me was not only damaging my relationship but also making me look like an idiot.

A year after the inevitable divorce, I reconnected with a man I had dated in college, and we decided to get married. We've had four great years together. I'm nearly 36 now and have picked up a few useful habits, like not fighting at other people's houses. But last year, I felt a twinge of dread as I found myself in a debate with my husband that recalled, for me, that infamous cathedral ceiling.

As we watched disaster unfold in Asia, we got off-topic one day with a definition debate. I insisted that a tsunami is not a tidal wave, as it isn't affected by the lunar cycle. He contended that a tsunami is indeed a tidal wave, moon or no moon. We went back and forth, ranting like ersatz seismologists. The children, initially curious, grew slightly anxious as our fervor increased. Eventually my husband fetched Webster's Collegiate, 10th Edition. He read the definition aloud, something about a big sea wave produced by submarine earth movement. It ended: "tidal wave."

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