For the last three years, Philip* and Susan have been arguing over who is right about…well, about everything.
They’re in a common relationship dilemma: What do you do when the other person disappoints, annoys, upsets, or disagrees with you? What do you do when you and your partner don’t see eye-to-eye?
You can pout, get angry, threaten, or cajole, to get her or him to come around to your way of thinking.
But such tactics will turn the two of you into adversaries, so it is worth finding another way to respond.
“What am I supposed to do when she doesn’t support our retirement planning?”, Philip asks.
“I do support our retirement planning,” Susan responds. “But I’m not willing put aside as much money as you want me to, if it means we don’t get to take a vacation.”
“I’m happy to take a vacation,” Philip replies, “but going to London for a long weekend is a little much.”
“For our tenth anniversary?”
“Listen,” I interject, “you are two different people, so it’s impossible that you’re going to always agree. If you want to stop this endless arguing, you have got to accept that neither of you is right. Each of you is going to have your own views and sometimes, your own path.”
“I know we’re two different people,” Susan responds, “but don’t we have to find a way to agree? We’re married!”
Many of us believe that we have to march in lockstep with our significant other, though in fact this isn’t the truth.
“Yes, you’re a couple,” I say, “but you’re also individuals and there’s no way for two different people to agree on everything.”
“But how can we function separately and still be a couple?” Philip asks. “I feel like we never agree about what direction we should go in.”
“Finding a way to be both an individual and part of a couple is a balancing act,” I answer. “It’s not all-or-nothing. You might sometimes go in the same direction, and you might sometimes go in different directions.”
“What are you saying? Do things his way one time, and my way the next? Then do things separately, the time after that? Or, toss a coin?”
“No, there’s no simple formula.”
“So what are we supposed to do?”
“For starters, when you disagree, you could talk about why each of you wants to do things your way.”
“To persuade each other?” Susan asks.
“That’s not the point, although it may be an outcome, sometimes. It’s about letting your spouse know why things are important to you, and understanding why things are important to your spouse.”
They nod, and the room seems a bit calmer.
“The result might be that you decide to do what he prefers, because you understand that doing so would mean a great deal to him. Maybe you’ll do so out of generosity; or maybe you’ll do so even if you don’t want to, because you think it’s the right thing for you to do. Or, she may decide that what you want is most important, and be willing to do it your way.”
“OK,” Philip says, “I understand that I might decide to do things Susan’s way, or she might decide to do things my way. But what happens if it’s really important to me that we do it my way and really important to him that we do it his way?”
In a relationship, it is inevitable that the two of you will sometimes have very different views and priorities, on small matters and on issues of great importance. So it is inevitable that there will be times when you let each other down by holding your ground when your partner would prefer that you be flexible. When you put thought and consideration into such decisions, taking the time to understand your partner’s position, you’re less likely to feel like enemies when you must differ.
If you are having trouble disagreeing without getting angry or damaging your alliance, please reach out to me. I’ll be glad to help you find ways to build a close and collaborative relationship that also gives you each the space to be an individual.
*All names and identifying details altered in this article.