You’re feeling great, and the relationship is coasting along smoothly, until suddenly you hit a bump. There, staring you in the face, is a problem:
You’d like to have sex every day. Your partner prefers once or twice a week.
Your partner leaves dishes in the sink for three days. You like things clean and organized.
You want to take a luxurious vacation. They seem to want to save every penny.
Your partner eats lots of fast food. You think it’s important to stay active and eat healthy.
At first, it’s not a big deal. You bring it up casually in conversation. The discussion seems to go well enough. But nothing changes. So you try again. This time things get more heated, and you both wind up feeling hurt. Eventually you cool off and make up. But still, nothing changes. You’re growing more and more frustrated. You try to discuss the problem again, but these conversations seem to go nowhere. Anger and resentment starts to build. You notice yourself thinking or saying things like:
“She’s acting crazy”
“Everything would be fine if he would just…”
“She’s too sensitive.”
“He’s being unreasonable!”
Soon your partner seems less like a partner and more like a rival, an enemy.
It’s a terrible place to be, and yet it’s so easy to get to. We live in an individualistic and competitive culture, where we’re taught to focus on getting ahead, winning, and being right.
This trickles into our intimate relationships, and commonly shows up during conflicts through behaviors like:
>> Trying to prove why we’re right and they’re wrong.
>> Criticizing and blaming.
>> Defending ourselves.
>> Justifying our own behavior.
>> Attempting to convince our partners to do what we want.
While a competitive attitude might help you in certain areas of your life, it is absolutely destructive to intimate relationships. Even if you “win” an argument, you ultimately lose because the dynamic that’s been created is now “me against you.” This doesn’t make for a very safe or satisfying partnership.
If we want to create more fulfilling relationships, we need a better way to approach relationship conflicts. We need to learn to act like teammates, rather than competitors.
Here are some simple ways to start:
1. Let go of “right” and “wrong” thinking:
When our partner’s actions, attitudes, or desires clash with own, it’s easy to fall into the trap of wondering who’s right and who’s wrong—after all, we can’t both be right, can we? We may doubt ourselves (“Am I being unreasonable?”), or criticize our partner (“He’s too demanding!”).
It’s important to realize that each relationship is unique; there’s no one right way to be a couple. You both must work together to establish your own relationship norms. This will be challenging because you’re different people, with different life experiences, attitudes, values etc. Some differences of perspective are bound to occur! But, by working to understand and accept and these differences, you can build trust, respect, and cooperation.
2. Attack the Problem, not the Person.
It’s common to blame our partner when a conflict arises. To us, it may seem like their behavior is the sole cause of our problems. But in reality, a conflict always takes at least two participants. And trying to make them out to be the bad guy will make them resistant and defensive.
Instead, create a unified front to addressing conflicts by framing them as “our problem” rather than “your problem.” For example, instead of saying: “We’re always fighting because you’re such a slob! You need to help out more,” you might state: “We have different ideas of what a house should look like. We need to figure out how we can create a space we both feel comfortable in.”
3. Seek Common Ground
A strong partnership honors the feelings, values, beliefs, and dreams of both individuals. This isn’t an easy task or one that will ever be finished. It requires constant effort to find balance between both your needs.
So what do you do when your partner makes a request that seems unappealing or unreasonable?
Dr. John Gottman, a relationship researcher, believes that each request, no matter how unreasonable it may seem, contains some reasonable element. While you shouldn’t have to agree to every request your partner makes, he recommends searching for something that seems reasonable that you are willing to do.
For example, if your partner says “I never see you anymore. I don’t want you hanging out with your friends on the weekend!” you could realize that the reasonable part of their request is spending more time together. While you might not agree to stop seeing your friends altogether on weekends, you could be willing to devote more time to your partner.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Kathryn Muyskens/Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons