Conflicts — 23 October 2006
How couples can deal with reoccurring conflicts

Most couples can easily cite their areas of reoccurring conflict. They know the topics, their differences, the details of the conversation they have and the unpleasant emotions they experience during and after these exchanges. Yet, they seldom succeed in resolving these issues.

Dr. John Gottman, the couple researcher, found in his scientific studies that 69% of problems couples have never change. What can change is the way partners deal with these issues. Some pairs know that they will fight about money, child rearing, relationship with a particular family member, holidays, money, home repair, or any other topic that requires a mutual decision or action. They say: “I am afraid to even bring up the subject, because I know we’ll have a fight ”. Yet, many of these issues are unavoidable.

The reasons for these reoccurring conflicts have to do with people’s preferences, personalities, early childhood modeling, prior experiences or self-esteem.

One couple’s vacation conflicts entailed her preference for elegant, remote locations while he chooses modest accommodations and group-guided activities. In another pair, one prefers winter locations, while the other gravitates to sunshine spots. Many other scenarios are available for people whose personal choices for even a joyous vacation becomes a source of grief.

Personality style causes some rifts in this pair. He is a cautious individual who needs to book the vacation early to be secure. She is adventuresome and prefers to wait for possible future better options. Timing becomes a source of arguments, personal discounting and shaming exchanges for this pair.

Early childhood modeling may be another variance source for couples. His parents prided themselves at being wisely frugal. They expressed disdain for those who spend their money “foolishly”. For him as an adult, using money well became a core value. He and his wife battle fiercely whenever he viewed non-discounted vacation spending as frivolous. She finds his approach miserly and unloving.

Life experiences may also contribute to a rift. The woman, whose former boyfriend met and later married a woman he met on their vacation, developed an aversion to vacations. Her current husband found this association illogical and restrictive and became angry and sullen about it.

A self-esteem source for conflicts about vacations may entail a partner who is reluctant to vacation on the beach due to a poor body image. The mate may view this restriction as unreasonable. The arguments to dissuade the reluctant mate from feeling this way often fall on deaf ears.

Couples know that talking about their area of conflict will only lead to a greater distance between them and often increase the negative feelings about each other. So some deal with it by one of them resentfully yielding to the other, or they get more entrenched in their position and create an unbridgeable impasse. Many pairs avoid the troublesome topics to avoid conflict as certain areas of their lives stay uncomfortably unresolved.

Since no two people are alike, their personal needs, views and preferences, personalities, history and upbringing are expected to be different. Couples need to take this as a given and use their love, caring, compassion and understanding in their healthy communication in changing the conflicts into creative challenges.

• Realize that your partner’s different wishes or needs are important and are not there to create conflict.
• View the differences as challenges that can be creatively managed to the satisfaction of both.
• Know that compromising is your contribution to loving and honoring your partner.
• Begin the conversation about a “touchy subject” by declaring it as such and stating your respect for your partner’s different view. Tell your mate that your goal is to have a dialogue about how to best accommodate him/her. When both partners do this for each other, the resolutions come more naturally.
• Speak reverently to your mate. Avoid jokes, labeling, name-calling, sarcasm, ridiculing, eye rolling, sighing, citing back history of failures, or seeming uncooperative.
• Ask your partner to suggest what will work best for him/her in this situation. If the answer conflicts with your needs, then ask: “what could work best for you that also takes in consideration what I need?” Alternate making suggestions that are sensitive to both of your essential preferences.
• The goal is not to win, but to accommodate what matters most to both.
• Though your differences will never be erased, successful discussion, compromise and sensitivity to your partner’s needs will avoid fights and bring you closer to each other.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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