When a person gets married, he or she is willingly giving up some autonomy to build a life with another person. All differences can be successfully negotiated if couples realize they are on the same team. Moving from the way one always does things, and assuming it’s the “right” way, to being more open about other ways of accomplishing the overall goal creates the interdependence so necessary in a successful relationship. Each one of these problems has a common foundational solution that plays out in myriad ways in the relationship. The primary answer is to focus on the needs of the relationship, not on the desires or comfort-level of the two individual partners, notes Ms. Lesli M. W. Doares, MS, LMFT, of Balanced Family Therapy and author of the book, Blueprint for a Lasting Marriage: How to Create Your Happily Ever After with More Intention, Less Work.
“Whether it’s having a joint checking account, setting a specific time and place to discuss a difficult issue, or establishing specific holiday rituals, it’s really about being intentional in creating a relationship that honors and respects the needs of the two partners, ” says Ms. Doares. “Not being able to resolve differences in any of these areas is a sign that one partner is stuck in an “I” way of thinking. ”
#1 Develop a plan before you get married
Couples can avoid problems in these areas if they have clear, honest discussions about them before marriage. Developing a plan for how to manage these potential problems before they arise will give a couple a good head start. Keeping their focus on the relationship, and what works for it, can guide a couple through difficulties as they crop up over the course of the marriage.
“It’s impossible to foresee any and all difficulties in these areas, but having a plan and working together as a team certainly loads the dice in the couple’s favor,” says Ms. Doares. “Taking each issue separately, a couple should take the time to identify current challenges and brainstorm on potential future ones. They should then discuss alternative approaches until a solution is reached that each partner can willingly embrace. Neither party should agree to a solution that does not feel right. These collective solutions are not written in stone but will provide a template that will serve to guide the couple as they navigate the future.”
#2 Keep communication lines open
Continuing to analyze one’s thought processes and emotional reactions, and sharing those with one’s partner, is the way through these apparent impasses, says Ms. Doares. A specific solution to handling these common difficulties is to set aside a specific time every week to address problems that have arisen. Each partner gets 30 minutes to talk about one specific issue/criticism that is problematic for them. This agenda is provided the day before so neither partner is caught off guard and has time consolidate their thoughts on the subject. Using “I” statements and taking the time to clarify, reflect back, what their partner is saying slows down the conversation, insures you are talking about the same thing, and provides time to manage any emotional or defensive response. The goal is not necessarily to reach a solution, but to provide a safe, productive way to address issues and disagreements before long-term damage is done. If a couple continues to struggle, getting competent professional help that supports the relationship is imperative.
#3 Don’t be a right fighter
None of these issues alone should be deal breakers for marriage but they certainly can cause unnecessary stress and unhappiness in the relationship. Ms. Doares believes that it isn’t that a couple can’t resolve these issues, but that they won’t. Irreconcilable differences are just another way of saying, “I won’t give up my position.”
“Many times deeper issues play out in these arenas. It may not really be a fight about how money is spent but a reflection of one person feeling the relationship is not balanced. Disagreeing about where to spend Christmas may be a front for one partner not feeling valued and loved,” says Ms. Doares. “If a couple continues to fight about the same thing, the answer isn’t to split up but to go deeper. Being respectful of each other’s thoughts and feelings is tremendously important if a couple is to really resolve problematic issues.”
Bottom line advice to couples facing difficulties in these areas is to examine why each partner is wedded to his or her position. Letting go of your end of the rope and focusing on what’s best for the relationship is key. This doesn’t mean that the opinions and feelings of the individual partners aren’t important. It just means that each one is willing to examine their position for wriggle room. Taking the relationship out of “You vs. Me” and moving it to “Us” is what allows couples the freedom to look at alternatives. It’s not about what either partner thinks is “right” but what works. Keep in mind, it has to work for each of the individuals, but it has to work for both as well.
Marriage is like being in a boat on a river. If you want to get somewhere, both of you need to be rowing together in the same direction. If the boat springs a leak, the goal of both partners becomes keeping that boat afloat. How it’s kept afloat isn’t as important as whether or not a couple is successful.