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The One Fight You Should Never Have With Your Spouse

It can be the canary in the coal mine, letting you know that you have a larger, underlying issue that needs to be addressed.

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Sol Cotti
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Any person who has been married for any length of time can tell you that arguments are an inescapable part of marriage. The perfect relationship does not exist, and even the most solid unions are peppered with at least the occasional spat. And is it any wonder? Sleeping next to someone every night, sharing finances, splitting household responsibilities, bearing witness to (or being the cause of) one another’s weaker moments — it’s literally impossible to get along swimmingly all of the time. There’s a reason married folks joke about being annoyed by their spouse’s breathing. What is it they say? Familiarity breeds contempt?

And yet, there is one fight we never want to have with our partner. This fight doesn’t have to do with a specific topic, though — it has to do with how we engage with one another, regardless of the topic. Sometimes this fight isn’t technically a fight at all, but rather an unvoiced breakdown in communication.

Switchtracking” — a term coined by Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone, both lecturers at Harvard Law School, in their 2014 book Thanks for the Feedback — is a phenomenon in which one person subtly shifts the subject during a conversation, much like a train being smoothly diverted from one track to another. It’s a form of defensiveness — a way to sidestep feedback we’d rather not hear. For example, say one partner confronts the other about spending over an agreed-upon budget. The intended goal is to get back on track with spending, but instead, their partner reminds them how, several years ago, they were the one being careless with the budget. Now, instead of discussing how to get back on track with the budget, the couple is debating who has been more of a problem spender in the entire history of their marriage. They’ve switched from “What should we do to address this current issue?” to “Who is the bad guy here when it comes to money?” The partner who brought up the overspending in the first place may not even realize they’ve been switchtracked. After all, technically, they’re still arguing about money.

Switchtracking may not even be done aloud. Perhaps while one partner reminds the other that they agreed together to stick to a budget, the partner receiving this unpleasant feedback is thinking, I work harder anyway. More hours, and I also earn a higher salary. I shouldn’t have to answer to anyone about my spending or anything else. They may sigh and agree not to overspend anymore, but on the inside they’re on an entirely different topic. They’ve switched tracks, and their resentment is building.

The problem with switchtracking, even when done in small ways and even when it isn’t vocalized, is that it erodes the foundation of our communication. At its heart, switchtracking is a defense mechanism — a way to avoid discomfort. But, much like a train that has switched tracks and changed course, a habit of subtly derailing your partner may result in the two of you arriving at different destinations.

So, how do we avoid switchtracking? And, just as important, how do we help our partners to avoid it, too?

The first step is mindfulness. For your part, if you can acknowledge that you’re prone to switchtracking during arguments with your partner, you can equip yourself to notice when you’re doing it, and bring yourself back on track. On the other hand, if your partner is switchtracking, you can pause the conversation, restate the original topic and ask to stick to that topic and resolve it before moving on to any additional concerns.

Another critical element when it comes to avoiding switchtracking is trust. Do you trust that your spouse has your best interest at heart? Do you believe they feel the same way in return? Or do you each secretly feel the other is selfish and often considers only themselves? If you share a mutual trust with your partner, you can remind yourself of it when you get into a disagreement. It’s much easier to avoid a defensive reaction when you are confident the feedback your partner is giving you comes from a place of caring and wanting only the best for both of you.

On the other hand, if you don’t trust your partner to consider your feelings and needs, then it’s only natural to feel defensive and want to redirect every disagreement to the problems that you feel need addressing — in this case, that you feel your emotional needs aren’t being met. Sometimes, switchtracking is the canary in the coal mine, letting you know that you have a larger, underlying issue that needs to be addressed.