Love is easy. Living together isn’t. Most of us aren’t very good at handling conflict. We resort to fight, flight or avoidance.
Look around you. Our political parties are incapable of resolving their differences. Neighboring countries in the Middle East can’t even sit down together and discuss their troubles. Our relationships are no exception. Like being stuck in a gridlock traffic jam on I-5, our marital engine comes to a grinding halt when we disagree.
What are the common sources of conflict in relationships? The big five, in no particular order, are sex, money, children, in-laws and household chores.
Bob wants to spend money on a new boat. His wife wants to buy a new stove.
Mary is a saver. Bill is a spender.
Joe wants his kids to go to religious school. Sarah doesn’t.
Tom is strict with the kids. Hannah is lax.
Dianna likes to make love way more frequently than her husband.
Joe likes to have everything in its place. Sarah couldn’t care less.
This list is endless. Sometimes lucky couples may just have one big area of conflict. Less fortunate spouses can have several topics of divergence. My wife and I get along famously, except we had huge differences about many areas of parenting. It took years for us to sort them out — and by then the kids had left home!
It seems that opposites attract. And then they spend the next 20 years trying to get their spouse to be just like them. Our differences are the soil in which conflict grows.
Here are some ways of addressing differences:
Take them head on. I know it’s tempting to avoid conflict, sweep differences under the rug or walk around them. But they’re not going to go away. These differences of everyday life will be like a thorn in your side that keeps causing pain. Make the decision to address them, even if you feel hopeless that you can resolve them.
Don’t discuss these issues when you are angry. The worst time to discuss a complex issue is when you’re mad. Most likely you will say something that will escalate the discussion into a shouting match. It is impossible to resolve these concerns when you are angry. Agree upon a time to discuss a conflict when you are both likely not to be hungry or tired.
Send each other written proposals for change. Sometimes it’s hard to talk about emotional issues face to face. Each person is liable to react to the other person, rather than to respond to their ideas. Write up a proposal, send it by email and ask for a response by email. Send messages back and forth until you are ready to sit down and talk.
Don’t use text messages to resolve big concerns. Fifty characters are not enough communication to solve challenging problems but can be enough fuel to ignite a fire! Save texting for unimportant brief communiques.
Don’t give up. The secret sauce in labor negotiations is simple. Don’t stop talking until you make a deal. In my experience, couples give up trying to solve difficult problems way to soon.
Give a little, get a little. I know this is hard. I am pretty stubborn myself and usually think I’m right. Take a deep breathe, swallow your pride and compromise. If each person moves in baby steps toward the other person, you will find yourself closer to each other than when you started.
Think before you speak. Words are very powerful. Once you say something, you can’t take it back. You can apologize for saying it, but it is not like an email you can recall.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.