Five Options for Marital Disagreements

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What does a couple do if one spouse wants to vacation on the beach in the sunshine and the other wants to go skiing? Or if one wants sex and the other doesn’t  Or if one wants kids and the other doesn’t? Or if one wants to save for retirement and the other wants to spend like there’s no tomorrow? Or if one wants to be vegan and the other wants to eat cows, pigs, and chickens? These and a zillion other possible conflicting desires have disabled more than one couple.

Here are the five options for a couple grappling with marital disagreements.

FORCE. The biggest, strongest, and more persuasive spouse wins and the other loses. As obviously counter productive as this is, it’s surprising how often some couples use this option. The partner who, for example, says no to sex wins and thereby forces their partner to lose. The problem of course is that the loser can become bitter, resentful, and angry. The dilemma for the forceful spouse: they may win but their partner won’t like it. You can either win or be happily married, you often can’t have both.

SACRIFICE. In this case one spouse chooses to back down and lets the other win. This option works if it’s a “low stakes” issue and the accommodating partner really doesn’t care who wins. The problem of course is that some issues are “high stakes” issues and acquiescing isn’t really an option. It’s unwise to put up with abuse, addiction, affairs, or abandonment. But even if the issues are not so dramatic the partner who never has influence, never gets a voice or a choice, and never gets to “win” has a heavy cross to bear.

ACCEPT. Couples who choose this option agree to disagree. James Carville and Mary Matalin, an apparently happily married couple with polar opposite political views, have learned to accept each other’s differences and instead they focus on their shared values. Again, this isn’t optimal because in some cases it often means one spouse will not get their way. How does one “accept” mismatched sexual desires, different financial goals, or a stubborn intolerance in matters of faith, clutter, parenting, or personal habits?

WAIT. This option involves accepting some differences for a limited time only. That is, they hope and pray that either they or their partner eventually will back down, cave in, and sacrifice. If being happy together is a high priority this is often the best option. If you’re tempted to say, “If you really loved me you’d do things my way,” remember: they’re probably saying the same thing! One party doesn’t automatically get to win just because of gender, age, or income.

COMPROMISE. This is easy if the issue is vacations (“we take turns”), restaurants (“this week you pick, next week I pick”), or spending (“we each get an equal amount of mad money that fits our budget”), and so forth. But how do you compromise on sex? Kids? Retirement? You either have sex or you don’t, have kids or don’t, retire in Washington or southern California. Retiring in Oregon means both parties are unhappy! A compromise might mean one partner gives in on one issue and wins in another.

When competing desires threaten to implode a marriage it’s helpful to remember that at some point every couple experiences tensions like this. It doesn’t mean you’re bad; it means you’re breathing. It’s during stretching moments like these that our true character is shaped, our vows to love, honor, and cherish are put to the test, and we find out if we really prefer to be a “we” or an “I.” My advice: don’t let a tug ‘o war tempt you to quit. Do you think your next partner will never have competing desires? Instead, welcome this vexing problem as an opportunity to grow.

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2 Comments

  1. Doug Wright

     /  February 21, 2013

    Erik,
    I read the article and liked it. So true that it’s better to celebrate the differences rather than see them as a problem. It seems that with the exception of the “force” option, they all could be used at some point or another. As long as it isn’t the same option every time.

    Reply
  2. Excellent feedback. Thanks. You nailed it; increasing our options is so healthy.

    Reply

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