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Just like kids, spouses have to play fair

Mending those unending arguments.

It begins so innocently, a mere ripple in the waters.

I suggest ever-so-gently to my husband, who is driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, that he might want to edge over to the left to avoid the monster truck in the right lane.

I speak sweetly, in modulated tones. Or so I believe.

My husband, who has received these suggestions from me for several decades, apparently does not agree about my tone. And we're off.

Husband: "Who's driving this car, anyway?"

Me: "A person who doesn't strategize very well."

Husband: "Look who's talking."

Me: (voice raised a tad) "What are you implying?"

By now, the heat in the car has nothing to do with the thermostat. Two otherwise sane and sensible adults are about to go in for the kill. Ancient grievances, including who's the better driver and my lifelong penchant for being late (the reason we're often forced to hurry), are all about to bubble to the surface.

And they do.

Marital arguments can be bizarre. They seem to have an eternal life, not just for months or years, but for the entire span of a marriage. Worst of all, nothing ever gets resolved.

I adore my husband most of the time. He's smart and funny, kind and generous.

But he's also the one person who can turn me into an irrational lunatic over issues as minuscule as why cracking one's knuckles is cruel and unusual punishment, and how he really should have cleaned the filters on the humidifier before his procrastination - there's a loaded word - led to an expensive visit from the heating contractor.

That's when the word nagging, directed at me, leads to more, shall we say, spirited debate.

B. Janet Hibbs, the Philadelphia psychotherapist whose book Try to See It My Way: Being Fair in Love and Marriage (Avery Penguin, $24.95) will be in bookstores March 5, has heard her share of repetitive marital arguments during more than 30 years as a therapist.

And Hibbs, whose pedigree includes dual licensing as a psychologist and a marriage and family therapist, has concluded that fairness - the kind we teach our children and presumably learned ourselves as kids - is the deceptively simple answer to reducing recurring arguments.

"Few of us really accept another person's differences, let alone honor them," says Hibbs, who cofounded Contextual Therapy Associates of Philadelphia, with its dedicated approach to teaching fairness in relationships.

For instance, I know that my husband loves me, but does not love my desk. He can sulk for days about how I managed to lose the warranty form for our new TV under the permanent layer of debris on that desk. I also understand that he will manage to periodically fit my high crime into random conversations.

According to Hibbs, we bring to arguments the certainty that ours is clearly the "right" approach. "And we often carry with us what we saw as children, relating to a spouse the way our parents related to each other."

When we hear only our own voice in an argument, the conflict keeps raging. That's the bad news. The good news is that, according to Hibbs, fairness can be a learned skill and an invaluable tool in marriages, new or seasoned. "Each partner needs to practice seeing beyond his/her own strong convictions."

David Popenoe, professor emeritus of sociology and co-director of the ongoing National Marriage Project at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, has long been a student of marriage. "Today, 95 percent of marriage-seekers say they're looking for a 'soul mate.' And when that soul mate turns out not to be perfect, it doesn't bode well for peace in the marriage."

The latest trend aimed at short-circuiting some of the domestic static? "LAT - Living Apart Together" is a growing phenomenon in Europe and is expected to catch on in this country as well.

In many instances, couples are seeking autonomy and freedom from the demands of traditional marriage, and an end to the annoying squabbles that come from constant togetherness. You live apart, but you still get the benefits of a caring, intimate connection.

"This living style ends the eternal argument about who's to blame for forgetting to put the top on the toothpaste," Popenoe says.

Yet it's usually the "Big Five" that cause arguments, says Kim Fendrick, a social worker and family therapist in private practice in Haddonfield: money, sex, children, family and religion. "Most of us argue to prove ourselves right, not just to get to the truth."

Plus, the dynamic between the sexes exacerbates the ineffective nature of the arguments.

"In my clinical experience, women are often more likely than men to remember grievances and old hurts, and to bring them up more often. Men are afraid that we'll never stop talking, so they often zone out in these circular arguments," Fendrick said. "All they want to do is end the discomfort."

Seemingly true. My husband's training in the law means he's logical, focused and linear.

My style is more lyric - or so I like to think. I tend toward drama, love hyperbole, and never have a logical mental outline.

Which is why Fendrick believes in the quantitative approach, with timer. "Set the time limit in advance, and stick to it. Divide the time equally," Fendrick said. "You may actually get something accomplished if you have your say, and, most importantly, if you know that the discussion won't go on forever."