Whether we just had a new baby as I described in part one of this article, whether we have no children or older ones, an important aspect of constructive disagreements is processing our fights, acknowledging perpetual problems, and understanding the stories underneath our differences.
- Processing and Understanding Fights
We have to get outside of a fight in order to process it. Once you have calmed down, begin by describing the feelings you had during the fight. Just name them, don’t explain or elaborate. Let your partner do the same. For example, “I felt defensive / excluded / angry / misunderstood / criticized / treated unfairly / unappreciated / overwhelmed / afraid” and so on.
Then summarize your viewpoint. Then listen to your partner’s viewpoint. Don’t interrupt each other. Avoid blaming, disagreeing or getting back into the fight. Instead step into your partners shoes and try to see his or her perspective. Communicate your understanding of his or her view out loud to your partner.
Take responsibility for your part in the fight. For example, “I am sorry, I have been taking you for granted lately”, or “I have not been a very good listener lately”, or “I have not asked for what I need; I expected you to just know.”
Decide how you can make this better in the future by gently asking your partner to do one thing differently next time and vice versa.
- Deepening Your Understanding of Each Other
Every fight contains hidden conversations that lie dormant underground. Instead of the fight, what conversation do we actually need to have? The answer lies in our childhood experiences and current circumstances. We call out to each other from within our own vulnerabilities. Analyze what the triggers of your last fight were. For example, did you feel excluded / ignored / unimportant / rejected / unloved / powerless / helpless? Then, see if you can understand these feelings in connection with your past. Where and when in your past did you feel this way? Share with your partner.
- Hear the Longing Behind a Complaint
Often our partner complains because he or she is longing for something that is hidden behind the complaint. Here are some examples put together by John and Julie Gottman in “10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage”:
Complaint: Why do you always let the garbage pile up like this?
Longing: I wish that we could feel more like teammates taking care of our house.
Complaint: You never call me during the day.
Longing: I wish we could feel close to each other, even when we’re apart.
Complaint: I’m tired of making dinner every night.
Longing: I’d like to go out for dinner with you, as we did when we were dating.
- Perpetual Problems and the Story Underneath
In each partnership, there are perpetual problems. In fact, according to John Gottman, 69% of problems couples have are repeats because they are based on fundamental differences in personality, lifestyle, or needs. “Choosing a partner is choosing a set of problems” (Dan Wile). If you were with another partner, you would also have unsolvable problems, just different ones.
Some examples are:
– Differences in neatness and organization
– Differences in emotionality
– Differences in wanting time together versus time apart
– Differences in independence
– Differences in optimal sexual frequency
– Differences in preferred lovemaking style
– Differences in approaching finances
– Differences with respect to how much closeness to family partners want
– Differences in how to approach household chores
– Differences in how to raise and discipline children
– Differences in punctuality
– Differences in preferred activity level
– Differences in being people-oriented
– Differences in decision making
– Differences in ambition and opinions about the importance of work
– Differences with respect to religion or spirituality
– Differences with respect to drug and alcohol consumption
– Differences in excitement levels
– Differences in preferred lifestyle
– Differences in values
– Differences in marital fidelity
It is normal for a couple to trip up over those substantial differences. When we are stressed, overworked or exhausted, we gravitate towards our perpetual issues even more. The key to a happy relationship is not expecting to change the partner, but to learn to dialogue about those problems so we can make the best of it. If we can’t dialogue, we end up in gridlock conflict. This conflict takes over and robs us of all our happiness in the relationship.
We need to realize that with many of these perpetual problems, shadows come up for us. Our partner is mirroring to us what we have learned to disown. For example, I might be the planner and my partner is better at living in the moment. Or I am more concerned about neatness than my partner. Or my partner wants to save up most of our money and I like to have the freedom of spending it.
Underneath our conflicts is a hidden story tucked away safely: a dream, a fear, values or personal philosophies. For example, the wife doesn’t just want to save money in her second marriage, but she wants to avoid ever having to experience being poor again and having to go to the food bank with her children like in her first marriage. And the husband doesn’t just want to spend foolishly. He wants to travel and have a new car now rather than dropping dead at 50 like his own father, who never allowed himself any fun.
We don’t find out the dream or the fear underneath our difference if we never ask the questions, “What makes this so important to you?” and “Is there a story behind this for you, maybe in your childhood history?” Being curious about the story is beyond understanding just the thoughts and feelings. “It’s about also grasping what our partner holds sacred—our partner’s values, beliefs, experiences, symbols, and legacies.” (Gottman, And Baby Makes Three)
Dr John & Dr Julie Gottman
We have to feel safe enough with our partner to pull our dreams out of the closet. The essential ingredients for a successful dialogue about a gridlock conflict are mutual acceptance of the differences and acknowledging the problem that results from those differences. With patient listening, laughter, and affection, the dialogue unfolds much better.
Dan: It upsets me that you spend money when you have so much debt. We should be lowering your debt and saving up for our own house. At this rate, it will take forever.
Abby: Why is it so important to you that we reach our goal soon?
Dan: Having a house together with you means for me that we are really committed to each other. It also makes me very nervous that you have debt.
Abby: Does this have to do with your family history?
Dan: Yes, in my family, financial safety has always been a high value. Being able to plan allows me to feel more in control. There is so much unpredictability in everyday life already. – But what about you? What does it mean to you to be able to spend money the way you do?
Abby: Money to me means the freedom to do what I want. You are looking for more predictability; I am looking for the opposite, for adventures and I suppose, unpredictability, when I can just take off on a trip and discover a new place. I also like to spend my money on workshops and trainings because this means stimulation for my mind and an interesting break from the everyday routine.
Now Dan and Abby can either honour their partner’s position and the dream behind it, or not. It doesn’t mean surrendering their own. It means accepting the difference between them and establishing an initial compromise. They might decide to put a plan or budget in place that allows them to bring down the debt while still enjoying life. They also need to talk about what fears each of them might have about honouring their partner’s dream. What disaster scenarios are popping up in their minds?
Dan’s worst case scenario is to end up like his uncle, who lost all his money and his house when he and his wife split up. Abby’s worst case scenario is not to have the freedom anymore to make her own financial choices.
Compromising won’t eliminate the problem. It’s in the nature of a perpetual problem to come up again. However, it does not need to mean the death sentence for a relationship to have unsolvable problems when we can move from judgment into understanding, accepting and dialogue.
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Relationship Coaching and Belief Changes