The Survivor Series: How to Settle Conflict When You Can’t Agree There’s A Problem
In the 3rd part of this series, I bring words of wisdom from individuals that failed to consider an important factor early in their dating relationship. Their differing approaches to handling conflict and the resistance of one partner to seek outside help for resolving problems can make or break any couple’s ability to go the distance romantically. Can couples that disagree about the need to address certain sticking points with the help of outside support ultimately find their way back to happiness?
Let’s continue to explore the most hard-earned and valuable lessons from couples that crashed and burned in loving relationships and lived to learn from it on my couch.
I treat as many individuals as couples because they have something remarkable in common. Whether it’s a solo partner sneaking to my office for a few sessions that they haven’t cleared with their partner yet, or a couple that can only agree about one thing — that they desperately need help, these souls are baffled by their growing inability to get along with their significant other. Poor communication, non-existent sex life, unbalanced division of labor, or a basic lack of genuine connection are just a few surface-level problems that lead them to the deeper issue; how they approach conflict and whether or not they see value in seeking help from their loved ones or a trusted professional to move forward.
In romantic relationships, the fact that there is a problem is not an actual problem. Romantic love is centered on the concept of 2 imperfect people attempting to share a life of closeness. Detection of each partner’s imperfections is bound to happen at close range. The true dilemma surfaces when a couple discovers that their conflict resolution styles are strikingly different. A punishable offense for one partner may not even show up on the other partner’s radar. One may want to talk about the small slights that occur over time to avoid dealing with an entire pile of problems later, while the other would rather sweep the small stuff under the rug. One believes it’s a waste of energy to have tense conversations about something they consider petty, while the other can barely sleep without expressing their concerns and feeling heard by their partner. A couple that can’t create a system that honors both partners’ personalities is headed for disaster.
“I should have investigated more closely” is the famous line of any partner attempting to understand how they overlooked this critical factor at the outset of their relationship.
In fact, my clients are shocked to discover that it’s an easy mistake to make permanent decisions based on temporary feelings. In the honeymoon phase of relationships, both partners’ behaviors resemble each other more closely. Both tend to be curious about each other, eager to please each other, and generally more tolerant about working through minor issues together. It’s easy to mistake your partner for being a member of “camp compatible” if you make a judgment before the dust really settles.
Their perspective on change divides the 2 major camps of people that ultimately create difficult relationships. One camp of people believes that a romantic relationship is like a springboard. It is a living, breathing, and growing organism that requires each partner to make personal strides and inspire each other to continue growing. Partners in this camp expect to put in a certain level of effort toward the stability of the relationship. The other camp of people believes that a romantic relationship is like a safety net. It is a place of comfort and support that requires each partner to accept each other as they are, regardless of how little they change, grow, or maintain their previous efforts from the early phases of dating. Partners in this camp expect a relaxed attitude from their partner. The phrase “take me as I am” is a popular motto among partners in this camp. When individuals from each camp converge in a long-term romantic relationship it creates a tug-of-war that leaves one or both partners feeling exhausted, judged, and in desperate need of equilibrium. If either partner is unwilling to come over to their partner’s side or seek outside help, then it will be nearly impossible to find a rhythm that works for both of them.
The words “You are not crazy” have brought comfort to so many suffering partners who rest on my couch. After describing their painful and confusing journey in relationships that resemble the one I described above, they’ve questioned if they are deranged for feeling resentful, stifled, or criticized for having such drastically different needs. After all, they seemed to have so much in common when their relationship began. If you discover that you failed to realize that your partner’s perspective on growth was different from yours, know that you are not alone. All may not be lost. Acknowledging that you both have different core values that aren’t being met is the first step to making a decision that will lead to a healthier place. If your partner won’t speak to a trusted outsider or professional with you, then go on your own. Only those who dare to do something different can expect a new outcome.