Dealing With Conflict in Marriage
There are fundamentally two kinds of conflict in a marriage: Solvable problems and Perpetual issues. It helps if couples realise this and deal with it in a healthy manner.
Solvable problems are usually more specific and situational. For example, Sheela is exhausted at the end of the day and hurt that Ravi doesn’t even notice and sits in front of the TV instead of helping to clear up after dinner. 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.
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,” 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
- Develop techniques to calm yourself, and if possible learn how to calm each other
- Step back enough to truly listen to the other person and appreciate their point of view
- 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. For example, Jai has repeatedly told Mona that when he returns home from work he would like her to give him some undivided attention. In spite of him repeatedly articulating his need, Mona is always busy when he returns, either with the children, or with her work or cooking up a fancy meal. She doesn’t see what the big deal is as according to her they get adequate time together after dinner on most nights. They have had some bitter and painful fights over this issue for the past fifteen years. Both have become entrenched in their position viewing the other as being childish and stubborn. This is a classic example of a Perpetual Problem where 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 is that some issues just don’t get resolved.
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 because they 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 of each other”
- Recognize and use the strengths that exist in your marriage and which have helped you deal with solvable problems so far
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 had special needs and his parents were quite obsessed caring for her. As a child he often felt neglected and almost invisible in his home. He felt this most acutely when he returned home from school and there was always the hope that his mother would notice he had come. But invariably there was some crisis with his sister and no one would notice. His dad too, was rarely present so Jai just had to grow up fast and learn 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’s story is that she grew up in a family where girls were not valued. Her father and paternal grandparents had told her openly that girls were a burden. In order to compensate her mother made it her life mission to make Mona successful and self-sufficient. At great sacrifice Mona’s mother had stood up against her husband and in laws to educate the girl and establish her career. Mona felt strongly that she owed it to her mother to be successful both professionally and personally. She worked hard, 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. 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 homecoming might always be a sensitive issue for him. Likewise, Mona had to get a more realistic grip on her overriding drive to prove her worth. And Jai needed to learn how to give her space to nurture her own dreams.
Dealing with Perpetual Conflict in this manner becomes a win win for both. 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 partners hopes, dreams and aspirations as well as your own.
If you need help with your perpetual issues or solvable problems in your marriage, talk to us. We offer professional counselling services for couples and individuals.