The Marital Poop Detector

Marriage Matters: Stand down, ye mighty warriors

This article was orginally published by the Sturgis Journal, written by James and Audora Burg.

Toddlers seem adept at reminding their parents of the wisdom of “choose your battles.”

Toddlers seem to be especially adept at reminding their parents of the wisdom of “choose your battles.”

Paul often gives us the opportunity to practice this skill. Our cue that another opportunity is nigh occurs when he goes toddling through the house, little stool in hand.

The first time we saw him do this, he was merely relocating his “stage.” Once in place, he plopped the stool down, stepped up on it, and sang his version of the ABCs – the BBCs, as he then called them.

But things changed when he discovered the height advantage provided by his stool. Then the countertops – and those things on the countertops – were within his reach. Oh boy! That front in the potential skirmish was abruptly closed off, however, when Audora pushed to the back anything that would have been within his reach.

Mom may have thwarted him at the countertop, but our persistent explorer was not deterred. He looked around until he found another outlet for his curiosity. And we are generally choosing not to engage in what otherwise might have become the ultimate power struggle with Paul: lights and their switches.

So when he flips the switch up, and the light goes on, we tolerate it. When he flips the switch back down, and the light turns off, we tolerate it. When he flips the switch again, we switch tactics and tell him, “Last time. Lights on or lights off. Then leave it.” And he generally does.

But the rules of relaxed engagement nearly changed the night that Jim emerged from the bathroom muttering a public service announcement: “Note to self: always turn on the sink light before getting in the shower.” He had been showering when Paul walked in with his little stool, put it down, climbed up, and turned off the overhead light. It was a very dark minute before Paul managed to flip the switch back on.

We play this for giggles, but the “choose your battles” decision also appears repeatedly in marriage, where it is rarely funny.

Researcher John Gottman offers wisdom for both when and how couples should choose their battles. It comes down to “early and gently” – that is, engaging when an issue is still a minor skirmish, and gently, by using a “softened startup” and without being critical of the spouse.

To that end, he advocates that every marriage should be equipped with a Marital Poop Detector,” a built-in early warning system that clues the couple in that “something just doesn’t smell right.”

If both spouses are responsive to their shared detector, they are by definition on the same side, working together to protect their marriage. And that makes it the ultimate win-win situation.

James Burg, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Indiana University-Purdue, Fort Wayne. His wife, Audora, is a freelance writer.

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