Out of the University of Washington comes over 35 years of marital research by Dr. John Gottmann that determines with more than a 90 percent accuracy rate, what’s going to happen to a relationship over a three-year period. In a national telephone survey there were two issues that couples were most likely to report arguing about? What would you guess those two areas were?
Examples of common irreconcilable differences might include:
- In-Laws & Extended Family Involvement
- Balance Between Home & Work
- Communication Patterns
- Sexual Intimacy
- Personal Habits & Idiosyncrasies
- Sharing Household Responsibilities
- Outside Friendships
- Political Views
- Debt Difficulties
- Disciplining Children
Here is the important point: it’s inevitable to have differences. It’s how we manage those differences that matters.
Differences Are Not Deficiencies
Let’s embrace them not try to eliminate them! (Or we’re apt to eliminate our mutual love and respect.)
Prevent & Eliminate the Negative
Not every issue needs to be raised. Simply loving and caring deeply for our partner may prevent many things from ever becoming issues. Marriage is NOT for getting our needs met; it’s for learning how to love and for finding out where we need to become more refined. For example, maybe we could let go of the dishes left in the sink. Hey, they made it to the sink! Most of life is rather boring; most days are filled with monotony and doing the same things again and again. Find the joy in them anyway! Couples who are successful have some hidden world within these ordinary moments and these moments are key to couples building friendships and sexual intimacy. Foreplay happens all the time. In Gottman’s “sound relationship house theory,” conflict, friendship, and sense of purpose and meaning form three inter-locking circles..
There are four common contaminates that we need to eliminate from our discussions. It is imperative to avoid the following four major patterns when we discuss our differences:
- Criticism (attacking another’s character)
- Contempt (conveying disgust)
- Defensiveness (blaming; counterattacking partner’s character)
- Stonewalling (disengaging; withdrawing with no intent to return)
Start with Respect & Affection
The most important part of a discussion is the first 3 minutes. Over 96% of the time, the way a conflict discussion starts determines how it will go for the remainder of the discussion. We can either become gird-locked within our perpetual issues OR our dialogues contain laughter, softness, and affection.
Set the stage for a discussion by bringing up issues, softly, gently, and calmly. Avoid negative accusatory remarks, sarcasm, critical and contemptuous statements. It’s fine to complain but don’t blame. Speak for yourself. Say, “I felt hurt when you left me alone at the party;” and not, “You are such a selfish jerk!” Be private, appreciative, and polite. When listening, focus on the message and paraphrase what you heard without a rebuttal; “It upset you that I let you down at the party.”
Resolve to Discuss More Than Solve
Not every problem needs to be solved. Over 70% of issues don’t need to be resolved but they need to be well-discussed! You’ll find that simply airing your differences is often all that’s needed. Hold regular couple councils so you make time for reviewing the week and how you’re doing as a couple. Use the following tool: “On a scale of 1-10, how did I do this week?” Or, “How was the party for you?” Perhaps that’s the way to talk about your frustrations, by saying, “The party was a 5 for me.” Partner then responds, “What could I have done to have made it a 10 for you?” Answer? “You would have come and kissed me on the cheek after every 30 minutes of chatting with others.” It’s hard to become defensive when your partner tells you a doable way to make a situation a “10!”
Honor Each Other’s Different Dreams
It’s important to honor and revere a partner’s dreams and ambitions. It’s unlikely that a marriage will be happy if this does not happen. I worked with a couple recently where the husband was going to go to work for a family member in a business he wasn’t really that crazy about in order to please his complaining wife who was tired of having her husband pursue his dream of music and not make any money at it. It is absolutely critical that you invest in your partner’s dream. Do what ever you can to support, acknowledge, and make those dreams come true. Changing the course of this couple’s direction has made all the difference. The husband felt supported by his wife who said “go back to your studio and make it happen, Baby. I believe in you!” That has made him want to go to the ends of the earth for his wife.
Additional Resource: “10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage” by John Gottmann