Sometimes our biggest conflicts come when both spouses are right.
By Tim and Joy Downs
The simplest conflicts are the disagreements where one of you is just plain wrong. You got the facts wrong, or you forgot, or—to be honest—you just didn’t care. Though we sometimes fight even when we know we’re wrong, our better side usually gets the best of us and sooner or later we own up to it. Sorry about that, I was wrong, you were right.
The more difficult conflicts are the ones in which you’re both right. These disagreements are harder to resolve because neither one of you wants to let go—but then, neither one of you needs to. At its worst, conflict is when you demonstrate your selfishness, arrogance, and sheer mule-headedness. But at its best, conflict is when you both express what you really believe in—and, in the process, come to a better understanding of one another.
Throughout our married life, we have often disagreed in our approach to raising our kids. Joy thought our son should wear his bicycle helmet to simply ride around the block; Tim thought it was an unnecessary nuisance for such a short distance. Joy thought we should remind the kids to take a jacket when they went out; Tim thought they should learn to remember for themselves, and a little frostbite just might do the trick. Joy thought we should install Internet filtering software on our home computer to protect the kids from accidentally going to inappropriate sites; Tim thought the kids should know that the sites were there, but develop the self-control to not visit them. At times, we seemed to disagree about everything.
Over time, we began to realize that our individual disagreements were like the leaves on a tree, obscuring the trunk behind it. Our disagreements about helmets and jackets and software were all the result of a single fundamental difference between us. When it came to the children, Joy instinctively placed their security above all else, and Tim instinctively valued their autonomy—their need to take risk in order to grow in confidence and capability.
What could possibly be wrong with valuing a child’s security?
And what could be wrong with valuing a child’s autonomy?
The problem is that we’re both right.
It took years of lengthy “discussions” before we finally realized two critical things: that we were not really battling about bicycle helmets and jackets and computers at all, and that we were really on the same side. We just chose different paths to a common goal: a mature and thriving child.
Once we understood that the issue of security was the underlying cause of many of our disagreements, we began to search for other hidden causes. Was it possible that there were more fundamental issues like this, more instinctive blind spots that were the root of our other disagreements?
Sure enough, others began to emerge, and after many more discussions we were finally able to identify seven fundamental differences between us.
Then we began to discuss our conclusions with other couples and ask if they had observed a similar phenomenon in their own marriages. We asked each couple, “Are there recurring areas of conflict in your marriage—areas that you seem to come back to over and over again? Are there topics you can almost predict you’ll disagree on?” In each case, we encouraged them to try to identify what they were really fighting about.
To our surprise, we found that other couples had recurring disagreements over the very same seven issues we did.
Our next step was to test our theory with a larger audience. Over the next two years, as we traveled and spoke at marriage conferences across the country, we began to take a survey with our audiences. We asked more than a thousand couples a series of questions about their own experiences with conflict, and wherever we went our findings were consistent. We discovered that there seem to be seven common underlying issues that are the root cause of most of the conflict in married life.
We call them security, loyalty, responsibility, caring, order, openness, and connection.
One of us must be crazy
By this time in your marriage, the two of you have probably negotiated and compromised on an exhausting number of minor preferences and desires. But have you noticed that a handful of stubborn disagreements still remain, and that those issues seem to crop up again and again with discouraging regularity? Like ancient Rome, all roads lead to them. No matter what topic begins the disagreement, sooner or later you find yourselves on familiar ground. “Oh no, not this again!”
Recurring conflicts are a reality for all married couples, and they are a source of ongoing frustration and discouragement. Their very existence is annoying. Couples feel they should have resolved their differences by this time, and their failure to do so must mean something is wrong between them.
Not at all.
Couples often wonder if these unresolved issues reveal some secret weakness in their spouse or their marriage. Each begins to suspect the other of immaturity, pride, or sheer pigheadedness. They know that whenever the subject shifts to one of those topics, there will be no resolution. They will end up, as always, in an angry stalemate, burying the disagreement like toxic waste until it surfaces again another day.
Understanding the differences that divide
Aren’t these hidden issues destined to be perpetual? Because of our fundamental differences, aren’t we doomed to repeat these disagreements over and over again in different forms? And if they won’t go away why bother to talk about them at all?
The reason we need to talk about the issues of security, loyalty, responsibility, caring, order, openness and connection is precisely because they won’t go away. They’re always there, and they always matter. Your different approaches to these issues represent much more than differences of opinion; it’s a battle of dreams, and dreams die hard.
If you feel like having Italian food for dinner but your mate prefers Chinese, you might be merely disappointed; but if you have a deep, pervasive longing to build a safe, secure home, and your mate is not cooperating, you’ll be much more than disappointed. When these seven underlying issues are simply avoided and left to fester, they can produce an underlying atmosphere of anger, bitterness, and resentment.
But if we do talk about them, since they’re not going to just disappear, what can we really hope to accomplish? Perhaps the best way to answer this question is by telling you what understanding these differences did for us.
First, it helped us to identify our dreams. Remember, dreams are often hidden issues. It would be very helpful in a marriage if a husband would simply say to his wife, “I should warn you that I’m extremely sensitive about issues of Loyalty. It’s a dream of mine to have an unwaveringly loyal wife.”
Unfortunately, he may be consciously unaware of his sensitivity altogether; he might not even be aware of what loyalty really entails. But just wait until the first argument about the in-laws—then the dream will go to work, lurking in the background, fueling the anger and confusion and frustration. The problem is that this husband and wife may go on forever believing that they’re fighting about the in-laws, never recognizing that the underlying concern is really all about loyalty.
Identifying our underlying differences allows us to ignore the diversion created by a hundred minor disagreements and talk about the real issue. “What do you long for? What is your mental image of how marriage ought to be? What does a husband look like to you? How do you think kids should be raised? Tell me about your dreams.”
Second, understanding our hidden issues helped us to put our differences in perspective. When it came to rearing the kids, one moment we thought that we disagreed about everything, from allowances to curfews to appropriate forms of discipline. Suddenly we understood that we only disagreed about one thing, but that one issue influenced our approach to dozens of others. That understanding alone changed our self-perception, from a couple who could never seem to agree, to a couple with only a handful of fundamental differences. That change in perspective allowed us to shift our focus from the superficial symptoms to the underlying disease.
Third, understanding our hidden issues helped us to understand each other’s true motives. Joy was concerned about the children’s safety, but Tim didn’t seem to care if they got hurt. Tim wanted the kids to grow to independence, but Joy seemed to want to keep them tied to her apron strings. The other’s perspective seemed so selfish and short-sighted that it naturally produced anger in each of us. Why don’t you care what happens to the kids? We both cared, of course; we both wanted the best for the kids, but that was hard to believe. Understanding the underlying conflict allowed us see the other’s motives in a completely different light.
Fourth, understanding our hidden issues helped us to anticipate conflicts before they occurred. As we said earlier, couples learn which topics are most likely to generate a conflict and “rope off” those areas as if they were minefields. But the problem with a minefield is that the dangers lie buried, so the explosions are often unexpected. We begin by discussing bicycle helmets, and before we know it, it’s a full-fledged argument. How did that happen?
Once we understood each other’s underlying dreams, we could look for other issues that might be influenced by those same dreams. That allowed us to take a proactive approach to our differences rather than always having to clean up messes and bandage wounds later on. We knew where we were likely to disagree, and we could be ready for it.
Finally, understanding our hidden issues helped us to work together as partners instead of battling as foes. Once we understood each other’s dreams, once we each realized what the other person was valuing, our attitudes changed. We wanted to help fulfill the other’s dreams rather than stubbornly defend our own turf. That change in attitude has allowed us to work together as partners instead of constantly shouting at each other from opposite sides of the fence.
Dreams die hard, but your dreams don’t have to die at all. The presence of conflict in your marriage is not a condemnation. It simply means that you have dreams—that you are human beings and that there are things you long for, things you truly believe in. The question is, how will you believe in them together? How will you honor each other’s dreams, even when they sometimes conflict? You know what to do when one of you is wrong; what will you do when both of you are right?
Adapted from One of Us Must Be Crazy … And I’m Pretty Sure It’s You, by Tim and Joy Downs. Published by Moody Publishers, Chicago, Illinois ©2003, 2010 by Tim and Joy Downs. Used with permission.