Be careful not to compromise what you want most for what you want now.
Every marriage starts with a fantasy. The fantasy is you’ve found the ‘right one”, your “soulmate” to whom you will be amazing for the rest of your life and someone who’ll be equally amazing to you. Finally, you think there’s someone who “gets” you. Someone with whom you’ll agree on the important things because they’ve told you how much they want to make you happy. Because you love each other, you’ll have no problem deciding where you’ll live, in what you’ll reside, a house, an apartment, a condominium, a double-wide, or maybe an RV. You’ll agree on the places you’ll travel to, how to spend your money, and whether to have kids or not. Through all of these decisions, you’ll have incredible sex. What you don’t think about is how and when to compromise and be patient with each other because the two of you won’t have any need for it, you’re in love, a love no one else has ever experienced, and that’s all you’ll need to get you through.
For some, it doesn’t take more than the first fight to realize the fantasy is never coming true. For others, it may take longer. It all depends on how each of you reacted when childhood fantasies were dispelled. The emotions you felt when you learned the truth about Santa Claus, the Tooth fairy, and the Easter Bunny or, your parents getting divorced, will be resurrected in your current relationship. Where you angry? Where you sad? Did you want to hit somebody for lying to you or scream at them? Did you ever really trust them after it? These memories are ingrained in your psyche. You will act them out in some way or fashion when you’re disappointed as an adult in a relationship you thought would give you as much happiness as that one gift you so desperately wanted on Christmas or finding the most Easter eggs or a five-dollar bill from the Tooth Fairy. In a marriage, it’s the same scene played over and over each time the fantasy about being “happily ever after” is chipped away.
Research finds that the anxiety you felt as a child about being deceived and how you learned to accept the disappointment is a measure of how and to what extent you’ll become bitter and obsessed over frustration with your partner. If a couple can’t talk about their disappointment, they may start to look outside of the marriage for the things they feel their partner is missing. Suddenly, marriage fantasies are replaced with divorce fantasies. The new fantasy is that disillusioned partner thinks if they were single, they’d meet someone who hasn’t the flaws they failed to see in their partner when dating or ignored but are glaringly obvious now and impossible to live with. The new “soulmate” will be so much more supportive. They’ll be someone they’ll be able to talk to about everything and agree with on the things that have become insurmountable problems in the relationship.
Sadly, they don’t realize that they take themselves and their learned experiences with them when they leave the marriage or relationship. The ugly truth is that there never will be the “right” person, each of us has to be the right person for the connection. Regrettably, unless both partners grasp this concept and work on becoming what the relationship needs, the chances of a successful second marriage are less than the first at a 67 percent divorce rate. For a third marriage, it’s a 74 percent rate of divorce. The biggest problem in a marriage or relationship is the failure to listen to each other, really listen, without being ready to respond. Research shows that when you listen and get what the other person is saying, your brain waves and those of the person you’re listening to really “click” or literally begin to “sync” with each other. Listening to each other is how compromise begins. Our brain’s desire to connect or sync with another starts at birth. When we’re looking for love in a partner, what we’re waiting for is to feel “it,” the feeling that we’ve synced with someone who listens to us and “gets” us. It’s how we fall in love, to begin with, and how we can fall in love again with the same person.
It’s essential to understand and be conscious that if we didn’t feel as if we’d synced with our parents or caretakers when we were very young, it can profoundly affect our ability to listen and connect with people, particularly with our partners, as adults. Research shows that when you’re in a conflict discussion, you’re not talking to the person in front of you. You’re talking to the person or people who taught you how to listen to an opposite view than yours. Since few of us inquire about how the person we think was “the one” was raised or the functional style of their family of origin, we blindly go into the unknown territory when we fall in love with them.
But our history does not have to be destiny when we’re talking about trying to make a life with someone who’s been raised very differently than ourselves. People can change if they value the relationship and are motivated to learn to listen before preparing a response based on a reaction rather than a rational one. Compromise requires patience. Patience understands that your partner has something going on in their head when they’re talking to you that comes from their learned experience. The only way you’ll find out what it is is by patiently listening and understanding that traditional marriages required less compromise in the past. Traditional marriage consisted of a man who had the assets or made them and a woman who was considered the asset. Thus, years ago, a marriage proposal was an offer a woman rarely refused. It was an acceptable way for her to be financially supported in exchange for performing household duties and having children. In contemporary marriage, women can support themselves, and being a single mother no longer has the stigma it once had. Today, women are, for the most part, not looking for a” breadwinner.” They’re looking for a “real winner .” Most women come to a relationship believing they’re equal with their wants and preferences, not in line with the gender-assigned roles, and stating their personal preferences triggers the need for compromise.
To achieve “happily ever after” today in a marriage means that both a husband and a wife must maintain a simultaneous perspective of themselves as individuals and as a couple. For the first time in the history of marriage, they must have a sense of “we’re in this together” while having individual life plans for themselves. This is a new kind of marriage and one that is so much more susceptible to each partner misunderstanding the other. The success of today’s marriages depends on both partners’ willingness and ability to negotiate the wants and desires that flow from their individual and joint life plans not dictated by gender roles.
Research shows that because of the shift of perceived power in contemporary marriages, they’ve become all about how well the couple can resolve differences. While I agree with this, I think it’s important to distinguish between a disagreement and a fight or actual conflict. So when you and your partner disagree about what you want in your relationship, for example, if you wish to go to the movies, have the in-laws over, discipline the children, or have sex, you’re talking to each other. And because you are talking, there’s a possibility that you can negotiate a resolution.
But when you and your spouse are in conflict with one another, you’re in the zone of making hidden assumptions about each other that you’re not even conscious of. When in conflict, your feelings toward each other are strong, and you’re not talking to each other. Instead, you’re yelling, avoiding, and talking over each other. It’s when you feel angry in the interaction and blame them for making you angry. For example, “I’m angry because you said you’d call me when you checked into the hotel, but I didn’t hear from you until the next morning, and you sounded uninterested in talking to me.” Your reaction to the event depends on how you’ve characterized it in your mind, i.e., “He /she ignored me, I’m not important.” Remember, this is your experience of the situation. Your partner will rarely have the same view of the situation as you’ve characterized it. It would be best to recognize that feeling angry, hurt, annoyed, or irritated at your spouse indicates that you’re reacting automatically from the personal life experiences you’ve brought to the relationship. Assigning a negative trait to your partner, thinking they are selfish, self-centered, self-absorbed, and careless about your feelings, and that’s why they hurt you, will only cause further bitterness.
Research finds that after “I love you,” the most common refrains in close relationships are, “You’re not listening!”, “Let me finish!”, “That’s not what I said!” In this situation, misunderstandings arise because the conflict is based on the negative trait or traits assigned to your partner by the assumptions you’ve made about them. You see no benefit to the relationship because you see no way to a resolution or to live with the now glaringly obvious flaws you failed to see before. What you do depends on whether you think the relationship is worth your effort to repair.
First, you identify when you’re in conflict and then acknowledge what you can do to alter the outcome of the conflict, but it will take some self-reflection on your part. No question that being self-reflective is mighty hard work. But it is the first step to changing a destructive cycle of conflict into a constructive outcome. Self-reflection allows the brain to pause amid conflict and chaos to untangle and sort through what you’re experiencing as a past reaction to a perceived hurt or for you to consider a new interpretation and create new meaning that can become a mindset and change the trajectory of the relationship. It does take conscious effort and your measured consideration about the relationship and whether it’s worth the effort.
While only you know if it is, too many people fail to self-reflect and sabotage their happiness, partners, and families rather than consider their actions’ impact on the relationship. So often, the issue is not the one they’re arguing about but rather those of their learned responses. Remember that self-reflection is the first step toward negotiating a compromise, it is not capitulation, it’s love. The way to self-reflect when having a difficult conversation with someone is to focus on listening intently to them and not on what’s going on in your mind. The most significant barrier to listening and keeping your mind on what is said is the nagging concern about how you’ll respond, choosing your words carefully and weighing your options by waiting for a few beats after the person has finished talking. Pausing before you react to what’s been said shows attentiveness toward the speaker. It’s okay to say, “I’d like to think about that since I’ve been focusing on what you’re saying, not on how I’m going to respond.” Or “At the moment, I don’t know what to say or how to respond to that. Give me some time to think about it, and let’s return to it later.”
When you’re listening to someone, you can pick up on the subtexts of what they’re saying by the subtle nonverbal details like a clenched hand or jaw, body and eye movements, tone of voice, and gestures. For example, when a conversation during a conflict about an issue turns into an attack, the listener communication experts explain that people stop listening and become consumed with thinking about how they can get back at or get away from the person. This is when the word “divorce” is often thrown into the litany of responses.
The concept of looking at a healthy relationship the way you look at a healthy diet began with the most critical nutrient, water, as communication. It is an essential emotional nutrient and learning to listen is the first step to learning how to communicate and compromise constructively. I realize that this is a hard sell since most people get to where they are in life by arguing their points and positions forcefully. However, it’s normal to think that if you pay attention to what your partner is saying they want and try to understand where they’re coming from and why it’s so important to them, they’ll give up what’s important to them. So, call a time out if you find yourself folding your arms, sighing, rolling your eyes, or fighting yourself from jumping in and refuting what’s being said. You can say, “I can see this is important to you, and I’m trying to listen, but my mind is being flooded with distracting thoughts, and I need time to reset so I can listen attentively and be open to understanding your position.” You can also say, holding your hand up, “I want to take a few minutes and turn off all the alarms going off in my head because I’m focusing on how I’m going to respond and not on understanding why this is so important to you. I want to understand that so we can compromise, but at the moment, I feel like I’m going to the way I would if we take a break and return to this in a little while.”
What you’re doing by taking a break to focus on listening is engaging higher-order thinking which tamps down the activity in the amygdala, one of two almond-shaped structures in the primitive part of the brain that primes us to react when we feel attacked. It causes the feeling of racing pulse, tense muscles, and dilated pupils. The amygdala is what makes you instinctively duck when someone hurls something at you, in this instance, hurtful words. Neuroscientific research shows that amygdala activity is reduced when someone is in a careful listening mode. Relationship research shows that couples who listen to each other can give each different context, and with context comes an ability to compromise.
Anyone who tells you compromise is simple when you follow their five easy steps is selling you snake oil. There is no easy way to learn how to compromise with someone you are living with. It takes patience, practice pausing amid a fight, and persistence and remembering the passion you have for your partner. Like the quote that is at the beginning of this chapter, think about what you want long term when at a crossroads with your spouse and whether a short term “win” is worth sacrificing it over.
Don’t Worry Be Happy!
Nancy provides insight into ALL the factors that can be influencing a disagreement in a marriage and therefore making it difficult to resolve that issue. It helps me understand how the strategy of stepping back might be helpful.
Nancy I always look forward to your monthly posts. They contain so much wisdom and relationship advise. In fact, I plan to read each of your Malnourished Marriage posts again and self-reflect. Years ago my husband and I started Co-listening, which is a communication tool where we each take 15 minutes to speak without interruption. That way we feel we are being heard. It was hard at first but it really works. Grateful for your insight and expertise.
Agreed! I so enjoy these posts and find them really helpful in my personal life and my work with clients. Love the co-listening idea, Stacy, thanks for sharing!