When my husband and I have our differences we are so quick to react to one another. He quarrels. I get into it with him, then I withdraw. It’s exhausting. Help.
In any relationship, but most certainly in a marriage, we have significant differences. Obviously, you and your partner are very different.
You have different ways of being, different views, opinions, different likes and dislikes, different values and temperaments. It runs from from the simple to complex:
He wants to have salt on the table or ice cream in the freezer. You don’t. He wants to establish a third credit line for renovations. You don’t.
Our differences are varied and extreme and a natural part of being in relationship.
The problem isn’t that we have differences or conflicts. The problem is how we are with one another when faced with differences.
Lets begin by noticing that for the most part, we are identified with and attached to our ways, ideas, wants and opinions. Our partner’s differences appear as a threat to us, appear to make our way, our style, our view, wrong. Differences appear oppositional.
Reacting or protecting in the face of differences is all part of being a human being — part of the primitive emergency reaction system human beings have in response to danger.
Like two porcupines with their quills out, once in conflict people protect in a variety of ways.
There’s the “aggressive” style. We will blame the other, attack, coerce, control, defend, disapprove. We may use guilt and drama or logic in an attempt to get our way or be right.
Or some of us become “passive” in the face of conflict. When we are passive we are avoiding, denying, withdrawing or retreating from conflict, withholding ourselves.
All our protections, both the aggressive and passive styles, have a payoff. Regularly the payoff is the sense of power or control, the feeling of being right — and making the other wrong.
The cost of the aggressive style is the injury the other may feel and the weakening of a sense of trust and connection between partners. It also disturbs our good feelings about ourselves.
In the passive style the payoff is getting to avoid the experience of conflict.
The cost of being passive is that conflicts are seldom resolved and remain and repeat themselves — we fail to learn and grow, and begin to feel resentful.
Being aggressive or passive in the face of conflict — neither work. So Donna, the first step to meaningful change is to become aware of what these kind of interactions begin to do to our feeling of safety and affection for one another. It sounds like you’re recognizing this.
Second we can become aware of our protections at the time we are doing them. This calls us to observe ourselves and to acknowledge the real intentions of our behaviour.
Once we see this and have some sense what it costs us to protect together, we can stay conscious and alert when conflict appears.
When we accept and flow with differences and desire to listen and understand, we can respond creatively and resolve conflicts as they appear. I’m sure we’d all agree our world needs more of this.
—Paul Beckow is an individual, marriage and family therapist on the West Shore. See www.paulbeckow.com.