Here are two marital anthems sung about conflict by many couples:
1. “We fight about everything!”
2. “We fight about the same thing or things over, and over again.
And the longer you have struggled with these, you probably have been creating distance and resentment, and worse yet, weakening the trust you once thought was impermeable.
You have been scratching your head over how to break either of these two patterns long enough. Here is how to stop repeating the same stuff while hoping for a different outcome.
First, categorize your conflict(s). (Remember, a conflict is not a fight. A fight is a mismanaged conflict). Here are the categories.
#1—ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES—These are the inside/outside the house chores; logistical stuff you deal with on a day to day basis. Everything in this category is BEHAVIORAL.
#2—QUANTITY AND QUALITY OF EMOTIONAL, AFFECTIONAL AND SEXUAL CONNECTION—appreciation, recognition, verbal and non-verbal expression of your regard and love for each other.
#3—VALUES AND FEELINGS—religion, life philosophy, political orientation. By feelings I mean:
and all the countless, different words we use to express all those feelings.
The first step to breaking the pattern is to identify the category, and here is why: we cannot effectively negotiate anything in #2 and #3 categories. That’s right. Feelings and values cannot be negotiated; they can only be understood in terms of experience and meaning.
#1 category items CAN be negotiated because behaviors can be negotiated. However, couples repeat their painful pattern for two reasons: They either try to negotiate the non-negotiable, or, they do not know how to effectively negotiate what is negotiable.
THE BASICS OF MANAGING FEELINGS AND VALUES
Managing feelings and values requires you to identify and express what you feel, and to also know the difference between values and feelings.
For example, neither of you can negotiate the other out of their political party orientation, nor out of their religion. However, you can talk about your experience related to the impact of the your partner’s politics or religion. Experience is the sum of yours, and your partner’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
I sat with a couple recently, who were raised in two very divergent religious traditions. They were well aware of this difference when they married, but without discussion assumed that because they are both Christians there would not be problems.
However, soon after their wedding his wife began to preach in her frequent attempts to convert her husband. Eventually, they fought bitterly about this, and wondered if the marriage had been a mistake. That’s when I met them.
As they talked about it for their very first time without fighting in my office, it emerged that she had been experiencing significant pressure from her family during their entire courtship, but had never once mentioned that to her husband. She simply redoubled her efforts to get him “to come over to my side.” He resented it, and pushed back with force equal to her’s.
He now understood the loyalty conflict (another layer of difficulty for this particular couple) she was shouldering, that she was feeling powerfully tugged in two directions, and that she personally did not want him take on her religion. She did not know how to deal with her parent’s adamant desire for her husband’s conversion.
Once they understood they were dealing with a values conflict, they began to direct their efforts to toward dealing with her fear of contradicting her parents, and supporting each other.
As a result of halting their attempts to negotiate a values conflict they have regained their closeness, strengthened their trust, and improved their ability to manage conflict.
The next CounselorLetter will address other methods of managing values and feelings conflicts.
Wishing you a satisfying relationship,
Jim Hutt, Ph.D., MFT
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