News flash: All couples have conflict. One hundred percent. In fact, about two-thirds of all your conflict is hardwired into your relationship. It’s a direct result of the singular cocktail created by your unique personalities.
You can’t escape this statistic, no matter whom you marry. If you don’t marry Jamie and choose instead to marry Marty, you’re still going to have problems. You see, Jamie’s an introvert and simply won’t enjoy the party. But Marty is chronically tardy, so you’ll be late to the party anyway and that will make you mad. But maybe you could marry Devin. Devin is on time and likes to party. But Devin also likes to flirt, so the party is just another opportunity to create distrust.
Whenever I meet with pre-married couples, we try to identify as quickly as possible what their persistent problems are going to be. What are the differences that are going to keep you from enjoying uninterrupted marital bliss?
If you’re considering marriage but are worried that you’re having the same conflict over and over, try out these three new perspectives on the issue and make them second nature when approaching the problem. These three perspectives will help your future marriage thrive, despite the inevitable persistent problems.
01. Focus on differences to manage rather than problems to solve.
One reason that couples get into trouble is that they spend a lot of energy trying to solve permanent problems. This usually manifests as an attempt to change their partner. Trying to change your partner is a bad strategy. I’m all for accountability, and maturity, and inviting your partner to be the best version of themselves, but remember, most of our personality is hardwired into us from a young age.
For one couple I met with recently, one of their issues was hiding behind the disguise of finances. He grew up in a small farming town in northeast Alabama. For all of his childhood, his family struggled to make ends meet. When he was in high school, they declared bankruptcy and he was not able to attend college. She grew up in a wealthy suburb on the outskirts of San Francisco. Her family had a ton of money and provided her with all the best vacations, and cars, and opportunities. They both have absurdly unhealthy relationships with money. Managing those relationships, not to mention their actual finances, is going to be a struggle for them forever. Knowing that, they’re still getting married...and I think they should. They’ve wrapped their head around a few essential truths that will sustain them as they go through life together.
Instead of trying to solve your deepest challenges, concentrate on managing the differences with kindness, respect, and curiosity. What can you learn from your partner’s approach? How might it help you understand the world better? Is there a middle ground that the two of you can create together? Any marriage is a brand new culture that has never existed before. Cultures thrive on difference. Embrace yours.
02. Focus more on the issues than the incidents.
Over the long haul, your relationship will become stronger if you focus on lingering issues more than problematic incidents. These kinds of incidents—the yucky ones— usually occur because of a conversation that didn’t happen. Some sentence didn’t get spoken. Some question didn’t get asked. Some sentiment didn’t get expressed. And so there was a missed understanding which led to conflict. Conflict is most often rooted in the way you’re treating one another rather than the issue you happen to be discussing.
Have the conversation. Find the missing sentence. Your whole relationship is comprised of themes and patterns that make up the larger issues at play. Get really curious about those themes and patterns. When you can get some perspective on and compassion for your issues, you can avoid some of the yucky incidents. Rather than focus on who’s right and who’s wrong, you can focus on what you both want...which is to become more connected, more friendly, more intimate. This can only happen if you commit to understanding the biggest picture of your relationship.
03. Focus more on the other than on yourself.
We’re selfish. Every single one of us. We are—each of us—the protagonist of the story we are telling about ourselves. And so we’re biased when it comes to our relationships. But what if we made our partner the protagonist, if only for a little while. What if, when it came to conflict, you worked really hard to understand your partner’s point of view? What if you worked really hard to uncover his deeper dream that is fueling his energy? This is a skill. More than that, it’s a discipline.
You may have to force yourself into an other-centered mindset, but try it. Try taking the position that the thing that’s actually driving you crazy about your partner is actually your own problem. And the good qualities that you’re attributing to yourself…assume they belong to your partner. Instead of thinking, “You’re crazy”, “you’re being unreasonable”, or “you should be thanking me”. Try, “I could be wrong”, “help me understand”, and “thank you”. Again, this requires practice. You might need to begin by literally treating it as a thought experiment. But it becomes more natural over time.
Remember, every couple has conflict, and conflict—even persistent conflict—isn’t a reason not to get married. But it is a reason to be vigilant. And it is important to change your focus. That’s the goal as you move through time together, over the long haul.
Photo Credit: Jordan Voth