The One Question Behind All of Your Conflicts as a Couple
Conflicts in romantic relationships come in all styles, intensities, volume levels, and flavors. In the morning, you might snack on a minor irritation regarding the pile of dirty clothes on their side of the bed. Then, after lunch, you may opt for some light sarcasm with a side of eye rolling when you notice that there’s no gas in the car…again. Later in the evening, it could be a juicy back-and-forth for fifteen minutes because one of you thought the other one was mad but they weren’t but they are now because you totally misread them and why are you always like this. On occasion, hopefully right before a stressful special event with friends and family, you may decide to pull out a vintage, high-decibel argument with notes of hostility, contempt, and slights against the other one’s mother.
All of these seem very distinct; a fight about parenting, bickering about which is the fastest route to the grocery store during rush hour, or silent tears after the revelation of a betrayal don’t seem to have much in common with one another. But while every argument looks and sounds different on the surface, there’s an underlying thread that runs through all of them–a single, essential question:
“Why aren’t you more like me?”
This is the fundamental complaint of any argument. Why don’t you drive like I do? Why don’t you act around my family like I act around yours? Why don’t you have the same sense of cleanliness, the same libido, the same sense of humor, the same work ethic? Why don’t you feel what I feel, how I feel it, when I feel it? Why don’t you express your feelings the way that I do?
It makes sense – if your partner were more like you, they’d make more of the same decisions that you’d make, you’d agree more, and naturally fight less. And presumably that’s the end goal, a harmonious relationship where the partners are in alignment and are seldom, or never, in conflict. Sounds like a dream… right?
As much as we’d all like to stay in that oxytocin-soaked haze of perfect unity that we experience at the beginning of a romance, the truth is that mature, lasting love is earned through successfully navigating our differences through conflict. Working through our ruptures in connection leads to growth and healing for both partners, something that can’t happen if we are identical. As the Jungian analyst James Hollis states in his book Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up:
We do not learn and grow by all subscribing to the same school of thought, copying the same values, or voting the same way. We grow from the experience of our differences, although in insecure moments we quickly forget this. The capacity to include those differences, even incorporate them into an ever broader, more sophisticated range of choices, is the chief task, and gift, of an evolving relationship.
We truly develop by coming into contact with and tolerating the tension of difference with our partner. Insisting on sameness can only end in resentment and feelings of rejection. After all, whose qualities, preferences, and worldview get to be the standard? If you are consistently conforming to your partner’s ways of being (or they to yours), someone’s unique and valuable voice is going to be drowned out, and you both will have lost the opportunity to really know that person’s true self. And expressing our true selves and having them embraced and celebrated by another–as is–represents a fundamental human need.
So if conflict is good and necessary, why does it feel so awful?
Well, the subtext to “Why aren’t you more like me?” is I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m good enough and you’re not. We all rise to defend ourselves when our essential worth and value are called into question, and when we are on the defensive (or counterattacking!), we aren’t listening. We disconnect, and it’s that disconnection that feels so terrible. When we feel compelled to focus on our own self-preservation, we lose sight of one another and turn inward. If the disconnection is chronic, we may begin to wonder if we’ve made a poor choice of partner, or if we don’t really have what it takes to commit for the long haul.
What’s an inherently different couple to do, then? Ignore the dishes piling up in the sink even though you’re seething with anger about them? Just look the other way when the emergency fund you spent months saving gets blown on a shiny new motorcycle? Shrug your shoulders when the kids get sent to school without a lunch for the third time this week? Not at all. In fact, embracing difference doesn’t mean anything goes. It means that both partners’ points of view are honored non-judgmentally, and that you work together to find a win-win without trying to destroy the other person. How?
If you’re the one frustrated
- Make an appointment with your partner to talk about your frustration. Be specific about what you want to talk about; this might sound something like, “I’d like to chat with you about what you said to Molly yesterday. Is now a good time?” Set up a time to talk later if they’re not ready when you first approach them.
- When presenting your frustration, avoid blame, shame, and criticism (basically any negativity). This will be difficult. However, if you put your partner on the defensive, they won’t be able to hear what you are saying anyway, and all your effort will be for nothing. Present the objective, neutral facts of the situation (what you saw and heard), what your feelings were about it, what it meant to you or why it felt important, and what worries you about this particular dynamic between you.
- If possible, think about and express what this frustration takes you back to from your past. If you can tie your feelings to a childhood hurt with a caregiver or a betrayal from a previous relationship, it gives your partner the opportunity to understand that a younger part of you is in pain and responding to a memory evoked by the current situation. This can go a long way toward them really seeing you and not taking your frustration personally.
- Speak to your responsibility in the dynamic to the extent you are able. If you’re contributing to the frustration in any way, name it and own it. For example, “I know I can get really irritable when I’m around your family, and I imagine that ends up being stressful for you, feeling like you need to keep all of us happy.”
- Once you’ve had your say and are feeling heard, give your partner the opportunity to offer their side of the story.
If you’re the one receiving the frustration
- If you can’t discuss the topic with your partner when they reach out to you, make an appointment and keep it. This communicates to your partner that their feelings matter to you.
- When your partner is speaking, mirror their words instead of responding to them. This is REALLY different from how we usually communicate, but it’s essential to ensuring that they truly feel heard and understood. Be careful not to add any interpretation or your own personal spin to your mirroring; make an effort to stay in your partner’s world while they are sending their frustration. This will be difficult. Keep in mind that it’s not that your point of view isn’t valid, it’s just not the right moment to express it.
- Check for understanding after you mirror so that you know you’re really getting what they’re saying. Once you know you’ve received their message, show curiosity and ask if there’s any more there that they need to say.
- Once your partner has shared their frustration, tell them what makes sense to you about it. Does it make sense that they’re feeling shut down when you talk over them at parties? Say it! Does it make sense that they would start dinner without you because you didn’t let them know you were working late? Tell them! This kind of validation can go a long way toward repairing the initial rupture. You can also flex your empathy skills and imagine how they might be feeling as a result of the situation. Don’t worry about getting it perfect, you can always check in with them to verify if that’s what they’re actually feeling.
If this feels a bit daunting to you, I don’t blame you. This form of communication isn’t taught or used in very many contexts in our society. However, with some practice, dialogue like this can become second nature in your relationship and open up a whole new world of possibilities for growth and healing. Reach out to me if you think you’d like to explore these deeper conversations with an experienced guide.