Certain kinds of conflict actually help couples feel closer. It’s not the fight in itself but what happens afterwards; that they were able to navigate a solution, come to some form of compromise, forgive each other for harsh words spoken, and in the end, care more for each other than who was right or wrong. That’s what makes them feel closer after a fight. But for other couples the persistent conflict can become an unbearable burden and they begin to dread each other’s company.
It would help if couples begin to realise at the outset that there are two kinds of conflict
- Solvable problems and
- Perpetual issues
Solvable problems are usually more specific and situational:
- Sheela is exhausted at the end of the day and feels hurt that Ravi doesn’t even notice sitting in front of the TV instead of helping to clear up after dinner.
- Ganesh gets frustrated that Meena leaves everything to the last minute and they end up paying a whole lot more, which could be avoided if she would only agree to plan their vacations in advance.
Other examples of solvable problems are helping with child care, respecting parents, taking an equal share in housework, managing finances better and being more romantic to name a few.
Here are some basic problem solving skills that can be used to deal with solvable problems in marriage.
Have a softer approach using “I” statements:
For instance, in the above example if Sheela said, “You never help me clear up after dinner, you just sit there like a slob while I slave away all day;” Ravi is sure to become defensive, hurt, angry and unlikely to get up and help her. A softer approach would be, “I’m really very very tired and would love it if you would help me so that I could also relax and watch TV with you.”
Express your feelings honestly without attacking the other person.
Take responsibility for your contribution to the problem and be quick to apologise.
Become aware when either of you are losing control and learn to call for a ‘time out.’
Develop techniques to calm yourself, and if possible, learn how to pacify each other.
Step back enough to truly listen to the other person and appreciate their point of view.
Calmly discuss how you can find a common ground and reach some workable solution.
The bigger picture
Keep the bigger picture in mind, namely that the relationship is more important than who wins or loses in this conflict.
Of course what might be a solvable trivial problem for one person could very well have a huge symbolic meaning for another and could become a perpetual issue.
Perpetual problems are usually fundamental differences in your personality that create conflict, or fundamental differences in your lifestyle needs that are basic to the core of your identity. Eg; Jai has repeatedly told Mona that when he returns home from work he would like to be acknowledged, in the sense, he would like her to give him some undivided attention, chat with him, find out about his day and make him feel that it mattered to her that he has come home. In spite of him repeatedly articulating his need, Mona is always busy when he returns, either with the children, or at the computer with her work or cooking up a fancy meal for their numerous friends. She doesn’t see what the big deal is as according to her they get adequate time together after dinner on most nights. This has been an ongoing conflict between them for the past fifteen years and they have had some bitter and painful fights over this issue. Both have become entrenched in their position viewing the other one as being childish and stubborn. This is a classic example of a ‘Perpetual Problem’ which keeps getting repeated again and again over a long period of time. In this scenario both husband and wife feel caught in a gridlock that they can’t get out of, and both feel criticized, unaccepted and rejected by their partner.
A lot of couples caught in a similar gridlock become obsessed with finding “a resolution” to their long standing perpetual problem. They erroneously believe that, “only when this problem is resolved will we ever be happy with each other.” The reality, however (as most couples know), is that some issues just don’t get resolved and remain like a painful thorn in the flesh repeatedly coming back to haunt them. No amount of skilfully applied problem solving techniques work with these perpetual problems.
Dealing with these Perpetual Problems requires a major paradigm shift in personal thought and belief on several levels.
- Accept that certain problems just don’t get resolved and might be with you till your dying day. The reason for this is, because most of these perpetual problems stem from unresolved issues of the past, are generally connected to one’s parents and family of origin and have become part of your core identity and personality.
- Challenge the belief that your marriage will only be happy if this problem is resolved. Ask yourself, is the sum total of our marriage made up of this one problem alone? Or are there other aspects of our marriage that we treasure and hold dear.
- Shift the goal from “must resolve this issue,” to “can we dialogue about our differences in a way that is respectful and honouring to each other.” When this happens the focus shifts from the conflict per se to the unfulfilled dream within the conflict which opens up new perspectives on relating with each other.
- Recognize and use the strengths that exist in your marriage and which have helped you deal with solvable problems so far.
Jai and Mona
When Jai and Mona were able to shift their goal from resolving the conflict to dialoguing about their differences this is what they discovered. Jai grew up with a sister who has special needs. His parents were for the most part quite obsessed with caring for their special needs child, especially his mother. In retrospect, Jai realizes that his parents were under a lot of stress and pressure with the day-to-day caring of his sister. But as a child he often felt neglected and almost invisible in his home. He felt this most acutely when he returned home from school each evening. There was always the hope that his mother would notice he had come, would spend some time asking him about his day, give him some attention and affection.
But invariably there was some crisis just as he arrived with his sister needing to go to the toilet or having just fallen down and his mother would be attending to her. His dad worked long hours and when he arrived home he would try to relieve his exhausted wife by caring for the daughter. Jai just had to grow up fast and learn how to look after himself. But inside the mature self-contained man there was still the little boy hoping someone would care that he had come home. Mona learnt this when they began dialoguing about their differences and why it was so very important to him to spend time just when he returned rather than any other time.
Why did Mona find it hard to be with Jai at the time he requested? Jai learnt that she had a story too. Mona grew up in a family where girls were not valued. Her father and paternal grandparents had told her openly and often enough that girls were a burden and that they were acutely disappointed on the day she was born. In order to compensate for this, her mother made it her life’s mission to make Mona successful and self-sufficient. With great sacrifice, Mona’s mother had stood up against her husband and in-laws to educate the girl and establish her professional career. Mona felt very strongly that she owed it to her mother to be successful both professionally and personally. She worked hard and relentlessly juggling her career and her family, only allowing herself some time off to relax after dinner each night. Proving her worth had taken on gigantic proportions in her life, and within that ceaseless activity there was always the hope that her father would feel her life had as much value as her brothers.
Learning to dialogue and discover the story behind their differences helped diffuse the conflict by moving the focus on being compassionate and respectful of each other’s intrinsic needs. Dialoguing like this requires a lot of intentional effort to truly listen without jumping to defend oneself. Dealing with perpetual problems also requires taking responsibility to work on one’s own unresolved issues. Jai had to admit that Mona could never be the attentive mother he never had. But at the same time Mona had to realize that coming home might always be a vulnerable time for him. Likewise, Mona had to get a more realistic grip on her overriding drive to prove her worth, while Jai needed to learn how to give her space to nurture her own dreams.
Both of them learnt that some aspects of this conflict might never be resolved and they learnt to be at peace with that. They also learnt how to meet each other half way at least some of the time without having to sacrifice their own needs completely. Most importantly, they began to appreciate that their marriage has so many other aspects that they both treasure.
Dealing with ‘Perpetual Conflict’ in this manner becomes a win-win for both partners. After all, no one wants the kind of marriage where you win but end up crushing your partner’s needs. We all want the kind of
marriage in which you are supporting your partner’s hopes, dreams and aspirations as well as your own.