(You should know at the onset that this is a completely fictionalize story of an actual case. This article represents an abridgment of my early impressions of this case. This will be the first in short series of articles addressing this issue)
"Our marriage is on the rocks.” What a way to begin a conversation! They went on to say, "Please help us resolve the conflicts in our marriage.” I have heard these words more times than I can count. I have heard many couples tell me that "we fight all the time."
Is this your first marriage I asked? I was curious as to whether the conflict patterns in this marriage are similar to their earlier relationships. They were! The problem was their current conflicts center around the same issues and the same conflict resolution patterns. Like so many others, this couple has failed to learn from their previous mistakes. Someone once said that "insanity is doing everything the same way and expecting different results." That seems to hold true in many failing relationships, including this one.
An article published by the American Psychology Association states:
". . .40 to 50 percent of marriage couples in the United States divorce. The divorce rate for subsequent marriages is even higher." www.apa.org article "Marriage and Divorce."
The painful truth is that changing long held attitudes and behavior practices takes personal attitudinal and behavioral insight, commitment, hard work and perseverance. You both must ask yourselves, what problem attitudes and behaviors do I bring to this marriage?
Remember what you said to me? "Please help us resolve or conflicts in our marriage." You should know that your problem is certainly solvable. But the question is, are the two of you willing to learn how to resolve conflict? More importantly, are you both willing to change your attitudes and behaviors enough to allow a conflict resolution processes to work? I must warn you it will take you and your partners best effort. Long held and practiced attitudes and behavior patterns are deeply ingrained. And, as painful as it sounds, developing an effective conflict solving strategy in your marriage will likely not happen without those two problems being addressed and corrected.
Please understand that developing a healthier conflict resolution strategy means you must commit to the arduous task of avoid destructive tendencies. You especially need to shed any tendency to practice ‘tit for tat’ behavior. It will be important that you individually commit to making the necessary changes regardless of what your partner does. If your marriage fails, you need to look back knowing that you personally worked hard to make the changes necessary to save your marriage. Too many couples play a tit for tat game. "You are not changing so why should I?" One of our earliest childhood complaints is wrapped up in this statement. "It’s not fair." It’s not fair that I am working on this and my partner isn’t. Avoiding an emotional or an actual divorce requires best efforts by both of you.
We can begin our journey If that commitment is in place. We should begin with each of you taking a brutally honest self-inventory of some of your less than helpful attitudes and behavior patterns. You asked me to "please help us resolve conflict in our marriage." I hope the following will help in an honest self-evaluation.
First, how do each of you resolve relationship leadership competition? Stated differently, how do you deal with the need to be in control? You told me that most of your fighting takes place when you are competing for leadership. It also seems, that a significant amount of this controlling behavior is the result of trust issues in your marriage. At Valentine’s Day we give cards that say, "I love you with all my heart." However, many come to learn that giving your heart to someone can be a very scary proposition. And, doing so requires a fair amount of trust. Some of these feelings, attitudes and behaviors are learned in childhood; some may be the result of things that happened in your relationship past; and still others are likely the result of things that have taken place between the two of you.
Internalizing the relationship patterns you saw in your growing up years is a significant contributor to your relationship patterns in marriage. You will find it extremely difficult to reduce controlling behavior patterns if you are reluctant to emotionally trust. So, asking me to "please help us resolve conflict in our marriage" makes sense. Observing and mimicking parental attitudes, behavior patterns and relationship interactions is a huge contributor to your current dilemma.
One counterproductive attitude is using the "top dog" style of leadership. Studies clearly suggest that leadership in an intense dyadic relationship works best when it’s egalitarian. If I may quote the Apostle Paul, talking about marriage, states: "Submit yourselves one to another. . ." (Ephesians 5:21a" NLT) Collaboration really requires that both of you willingly share leadership. With few exceptions significant decisions need to be arrived at collaboratively. Collaboration leading to consensus is much healthier for your relationship. And, it’s important to understand that collaboration is not "convincing" your partner to see things your way. Listen to the wisdom of Solomon: "In the multitude of counselors there is safety" Proverbs 24:6 (NKJV) or "Without counsel plans go awry." Proverbs 15;22 (NKJV) Even Karen Carpenter had the right idea in her song "love is surrender." Genuine humility is essential if you’re going to practice collaborative leadership. You also said, "we can’t resolve conflict." You will both need to develop a humble and collaborative communication style if you want that to change. Good leaders are not arrogant or opinionated. You will both need to learn to actively listen as well as talk with your partner not to or at your partner." Each of you need to work toward an understanding of each other’s points of view and associated feelings.
While the importance of humility in the development of a good leadership style is a must, arrogance driven by an over developed ego is nothing short of destructive. Many of us avoid conversing with individuals who are "experts" about everything. Everything is predicated on whether they "agree." It’s difficult to tell them anything. I recall one husband with a highly inflated sense of self tell me, "the only people who don’t agree with me are people who do not fully understand what I am saying!" WOW!!! An individual with an excessive ego strength will likely try to prevail in a discussion with their partner. To reiterate, trying to collaborate with arrogant people is maddening at best. Nothing gets resolved and you will accumulate years or unresolved issues. So, tell me, how does what I have said fit so far?" I hope it fits well enough for it to begin to answer your request to "Please help us resolve conflict in our marriage."
To be continued...
Author Bio & Contact Information
My name is Richard Alberts and I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) located in Appleton, WI. I have a Masters Degree from Dallas Theological Seminary and a Masters Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from The University of Wisconsin-Stout. I am also a Clinical Fellow with The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT).
I have been practicing individual, marital, and other relationship counseling for over 40 years. I have professional training and life experiences that will help me connect with your experiences. Consider reaching out to me for an in-office session. Or, if you prefer to meet online, I'm also an online therapist at the Virtual Therapist Network.