As we point out in another blog in the Marriage Series, Marital Partners Have Differences and Disagreements, disagreements in a marriage, or even before a marriage, are unavoidable. People have differences that lead to disagreements. They might be as unimportant as what movie to go to, but eventually can be very important, such as a major decision about a child. How disagreements are handled makes the difference between a successful marriage and an unsuccessful one (the latter being filled with painful conflict). The process for the successful handling of a disagreement begins the moment one or both spouses discover they have a disagreement
Remember from that prior blog referred to above, spouses in a successful marriage have as many gut-wrenching disagreements as people in unsuccessful marriages. However, the difference is they simply keep it clean, keep it short, resolve the disagreement and repair any emotional harm done to one another. The important step in this process is to limit the harm done when a disagreement is discovered and then define the disagreement in a way that has a solution.
How a couple discovers that they have a disagreement is impossible to predict. Most disagreements come up spontaneously, and it might be difficult to prevent harm to one another and to the marriage. For example,
“I gave Jenny $10 for mowing the lawn.”
“You what! You are going to spoil her.”
“What are you, a slave-driver?”
When a disagreement is discovered, spouses need to hit the pause button and think. In the above example, the spouses might simply discuss whether or not Jenny should be paid for a household chore. The differences in their values or own experiences growing up might prompt each spouse to dig in, each believing that he and she is “right”. This is because they defined the disagreement in a way that has no solution. One spouse might even “win” the argument, but the other spouse is highly likely to do something different the next time the issue comes up. Worse yet, the new proposal might not be acceptable or appropriate, causing another argument and unresolved conflict. If this pattern continues, instead of arguing about whether or not a child should be paid for chores, they will be arguing about how awful each other are.
How do you define a problem so that it has a win-win solution? After some thought, one of the spouses might say,
“What are our goals for Jenny participating in a family
with some responsibilities?”
This is an important step: think about the long-term goals of both spouses. Without spending too much time on the actual discussion, our hypothetical spouses agreed that Jenny should be expected to take care of some household responsibilities without getting paid for it. This will teach her to be a responsible housemate (and adult) in the future. However, there are some extra responsibilities that are optional, for which she can be paid. This will teach her good work habits and how she can earn and manage her own money.
This is how you can define a disagreement that can lead to a solution that is “right” for both spouses. They simply need to discuss which responsibilities go into which column- i.e., the child not paid and paid. It is a win-win-win solution, where Jenny also benefits. She benefits from not having her parents in repeated conflicts, and worse yet, witnessing nasty arguing. She also learns to be a responsible member of a household and can earn money by doing some extra work.
At the end of the discussion, each spouse should apologize for their initial reactions, in order to minimize the harm to one another.
We admit that our example was a simple one and might not have ignited a passionate disagreement. It had to be simple to make our point. However, the process is the same on even the most emotionally charged disagreements.
- Stop once it is clear that there is a disagreement and before arguing
- Identify the long-term goals of both spouses for the issue, and the values involved
- Define the goals in a way that can be reached, giving equal weight to those of both spouses
- Make a plan to reach those goals that solves the disagreement
- Repair any emotional harm done
The point of this blog is simple. When a disagreement surfaces, stop and think about how to define the marital disagreement based on long-term goals that have a solution. This accomplishes what both spouses want to accomplish. Real life can be a bit messier than our example, and that is fine. However, with practice, a couple can get really good at defining a problem, based on long-term goals, that has a win-win solution. One of the major benefits of this approach is that solutions that include the goals and values of both spouses are almost always superior to what either spouse could do on their own.