Couple fighting
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"I'm right; you're wrong." "You never check in with me first." "You ignore me in public." News flash: These ordinary little annoyances are potentially ruinous for 80 percent of couples. Is there any way to stop the downward spiral? Couples therapist Brent Atkinson, PhD, argues yes, but first you'll have to do the one thing that's hardest for you...

"Somebody please get me out of here!" Grace had to check to be sure that she hadn't actually blurted the words out loud. She'd come to this wedding reception as a favor to her husband, Adam, whose friend from high school was getting married. Adam was sitting at the main table, laughing and having a great time, while Grace was stuck listening to a plump, middle-aged woman chatter about her poodle. Grace thought, "This is the last place on earth I want to be right now." She looked repeatedly in Adam's direction. Finally catching his eye, she motioned for him to come over. But Adam shook his head and mouthed "I can't!" Bullshit, thought Grace. She'd already seen other members of the wedding party leave the table to talk to their families. "This is so typical," she thought. "He drags me here, then abandons me."

After what seemed like an eternity, the dancing began. Grace's irritation yielded to a sense of anticipation as Adam smiled and began walking toward her. But he never made it across the room. He was intercepted by three friends who insisted that he go outside with them to smoke cigars. Adam held up one finger, signaling to Grace that he'd be there in a minute. Before she could register a protest, Adam disappeared out the door. Grace sat and stewed, planning what she would say to him when he returned. Ten minutes passed, then 20. After a half hour, she walked out of the reception, got in their car, and went home. Adam eventually returned and searched for Grace. It dawned on him that she had left. He called her cell phone, but she didn't pick up. He shook his head, muttered "What a baby!" and then went back to the party. At 4 o'clock in the morning, Adam slipped into the bedroom, grateful that Grace was sound asleep.

His eyes popped open at 9 a.m. to the sound of the coffee grinder. "Uh-oh," he thought. "It's time to face the music." He crept behind his wife and gave her a hug. She endured it silently until he gave up and released her. Playing dumb, Adam asked, "Why did you leave last night? I was looking for you." Grace rolled her eyes and replied, "Yeah, you were looking really hard, weren't you?" Her sarcasm let Adam know he was in the doghouse—a place he was all too familiar with.

Adam was still reeling from the abrupt change he'd seen in Grace since they'd gotten married three years before. Her independence was one of the things he had found most attractive about her, but as soon as they said "I do," she morphed into a demanding, controlling nag who constantly required his attention—or so it seemed to him. Adam let out an exasperated sigh and backed away, thinking, "Here we go again." They didn't speak for the remainder of the day or the following morning. In fact, when they came in for their therapy session three days later, they still hadn't spoken.

Most people believe that certain ways of behaving in relationships are correct and others are incorrect. This is true to some degree. We would probably all agree that physically assaulting one's partner is wrong. But marriage researchers have found that the vast majority of things couples argue about involve areas in which there is no evidence that one partner's standards are better or "healthier" than the other's.

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