Five Options for Marital Disagreements


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.


The Challenge of Marital Dilemmas

Sometimes decision making is hard....

Sometimes decision making is hard….

Couples sometimes hope a counselor will put pressure on their spouse to change. Counselors resist that role for several reasons, confident that there’s a force for change more powerful than any counselor. It’s called the marital dilemma. Counselors don’t need to put pressure on anybody. Marital dilemmas do a dandy job without any help. Here are some examples.
  • “I want to make sure my partner doesn’t do anything I disapprove of AND I don’t want to be called controlling.”
  • “I want my partner to make all the decisions so I don’t have to AND I want to be a mature adult.”
  • “I want to grow in patience AND I want to avoid situations that require patience.”
  • “I want the prerogative to forget birthdays, anniversaries, and Valentine’s Day AND I want my partner to like it.”
  • “I want my spouse to communicate with me AND I want them only to say things that I like.”
  • “I want the right to withhold sex indefinitely AND I want to feel secure that my spouse won’t resent it.”
  • “I want to drink as much and as often as I want AND I want to act responsibly.”
  • “I am stubborn and refuse to change AND I want to be happy.”
  • “I want my partner to support me financially AND I don’t want them to spend so much time at work.”
  • “I want my partner to help me overcome procrastination AND I want them to stay quiet when I’m late.”
  • “I acquiesce, cave, give in, and accommodate to my partner’s every whim AND I want to get my way once in a while.”
  • “I want to trust my partner’s decisions AND I want to live risk free.”
  • “I want to control my partner AND I want them to like it.”
  • “I want my partner to meet my needs AND I want them to meet my needs without being asked.”
  • “I want our marriage to grow, improve, get better AND I want to avoid the hard work of making personal changes.”
  • “To make sure my partner and I agree on everything I’ll make them agree with me AND I want them to do so voluntarily.”
  • “To make sure my partner and I agree on everything I’ll agree with them AND I also want a voice in this marriage.”

My response to comments like these? “You’ve got a dilemma. You want two things but you can’t have them both. Instead of working on the marriage the marriage is working on you. Now is your chance to make important inner changes. These dilemmas are the incentive for growth! Yay! Relish them. You can resist them or you can be happy; the choice is yours.”

Nine Obstacles That Sabotage Bringing Ideas to Fruition

What's wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong with this picture?

If you’re like me you’ve got more ideas in your head than you know what to do with. Several years ago I adopted the David Allen system of capturing someday-maybes. I’m not sure this was a good plan. As a result of writing down every idea for a future book, play, game, article, sermon, cartoon, art project, slide show, power point presentation, caricature, volvelle, business idea, new model for conflict resolution, therapeutic, home, family, financial, and health project I’ve now got a list of over a thousand “someday maybes.” I’m not going to live long enough to finish 99.9% of them.

Perhaps you know the feeling: guilt for not reading that book screaming, “Read me!”, sadness for not writing that novel screaming, “Write me!,” and depression for not drawing that graphic novel screaming, “Draw me!” There’s the embarrassment of telling friends about grandiose projects that now languish. And then there’s the frustration of not having a disciplined enough mind to stick to a task until it’s complete.

Your list of creative someday-maybes may include building a computer, starting a business, landscaping the yard, learning a new hobby, taking or teaching a new class, launching a blog, opening a restaurant, making a film, selling homemade jewelry, or refinishing that old piece of furniture in your garage. What’s the deal with these creative brains? Why do we start a million projects and bring so few to completion? Why is cooking up ideas effortless but doing them so difficult? Why can’t we stick to a project?

I’ve read a dozen books about creativity over the years and have yet to discover the silver bullet that cures the distracted brain flitting like a moth from idea to idea. One of my someday-maybes is to write the great American mixed metaphor. Another of my someday-maybes is to cure Attention Deficit Disorder without pharmaceuticals. If not that, at least discover the trick to sustained focus. If not that, at least understand the causes and cures for boredom. I’ve got a long way to go but here’s a list of key suspects behind the proliferation of ideas and dearth of completions.

1. Drug addiction. Thinking up new ideas squirts the pleasure drug dopamine into our system. Doing the hard work of acting on that idea turns off the flow of dopamine. The thrill of invention is replaced by the grind of execution.

2. Fantasy. When new ideas show up we imagine it’s the best idea ever like those singers on American Idol who think they sing like Adele but sound like a duck.

3. Distractions. Hearing from the creative muse is a thrill but she eventually gets hoarse and another one quickly comes along with a louder voice and she woos us into her seductive clutches. Too many voices!

4. Waning value. This is the most puzzling aspect of boredom. How can an idea that initially gives us goosebumps, energy-enriched insomnia, and adrenaline-charged bliss lose its charm? It can’t be that the idea changes; it must be us.

5. Waning sustainability. Maybe it’s not the nail that loses it’s attraction to a magnet, maybe its the magnet that loses its magnetism. Maybe it’s not our idea that loses its luster, maybe the problem is our inability to stay enamored with luster. What can we do to protect our brains from creative delight fatigue? I don’t know yet.

6. Self doubt. One minute we imagine giving our Nobel Prize acceptance speech and the next minute we imagine being parodied as fools on Youtube.

7. Inferior quality. Woody Guthrie once said, “I wrote a thousand folk songs hoping at least one of ’em would be good.” He ended up writing Roll On Columbia, Washington State’s official song. In 60 years I’ve left a trail of a thousand poems, businesses, guitar ditties, books, drawings, handouts, skits, caricatures, data wheels, and cartoons not one of which has become Washington State’s official anything.

8. Skill deficit. The idea generating part of our brains must be huge and the idea execution, staying motivated, and bringing ideas to completion part is microscopic.

9. Competing priorities. Illness, home repairs, bills, jobs, weddings, holidays, and birthdays prevent us from staying engaged, from maintaining interest, and sustaining concentrated focus.

If anything those books on creativity have taught me, creative brains that come up with ideas but don’t complete ideas are not alone. Why else would we read, “Great ideas need landing gear as well as wings,” “Better the end of a project than it’s beginning” and “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” If you’re like me with too many ideas and too little time to finish em all, I feel ya!

Now, back to that Great American mixed metaphor………..

Men and Women Can’t Be “Just Friends”


Talk about a dilemma! Some married partners demand the right to have close opposite gender friends AND they expect their partners to approve. I’ve yet to see this work. One is accused of being overly jealous; the other is accused of lacking healthy boundaries.

In a recent Scientific American article opposite sex friendships were studied and the authors concluded, “The possibility remains that this apparently platonic coexistence is merely a facade, an elaborate dance covering up countless sexual impulses bubbling just beneath the surface.” Strong language, indeed.

 Other thought provoking observations:

  • Men were much more attracted to their female friends than vice versa.
  • Men were more likely than women to think that their opposite-sex friends were attracted to them—a clearly misguided belief.
  • Females generally were not attracted to their male friends and they assumed that this lack of attraction was mutual.
  • Men consistently overestimated the level of attraction felt by their female friends and women consistently underestimated the level of attraction felt by their male friends.
  • Two people can experience the exact same relationship in radically different ways. Men seem to see myriad opportunities for romance in their supposedly platonic opposite-sex friendships. The women in these friendships, however, seem to have a completely different orientation—one that is actually platonic.

Glass cover

One of the best affair recovery books I use as marriage therapist is Shirley Glass, Not Just Friends. She explores the new crisis of infidelity resulting from platonic relationships that become progressively intense. Personal and professional friendships between men and women have become so prevalent and accepted that, according to Glass, even “good” people in “good” marriages can be swept away in a riptide of emotional intimacy more potent than sheer sexual attraction. 

While it’s true some partners can be insecure, possessive, and jealous without cause, greater damage is done to marriages by partners who defy, deny, and disregard the concerns of a loving spouse. I don’t get to vote who your friends are…but your spouse does. And I believe we ignore their cautions to our peril.




When Making You Happy Makes Me Unhappy

It may be hard for you to believe this, but I genuinely do not like doing ___. I know you like it, but I’m not you. This puts me in a huge quandary. I want you to be happy. I love you and want living with me to be a joy for you. But if your happiness depends on my doing ___ we’ve got a problem. I’ve tried to stifle my gag reflex and do the thing you’ve asked me to do. But it’s hard. I’ve tried to explain this to you many times but I’m not sure I’ve successfully explained why it’s so hard for me to do ___. I simply find doing ____ repellant, difficult, unnatural, and unpleasant. Which do you want: me do ___ , or me be happy? You can’t have both.

You’ve told me that if I really loved you I’d do ___ with consistency and joy. As hard as it may be for you to grasp this, both facts are true: 1) I do love you and 2) I do not love doing ___. We are at an impasse in this relationship. Dilemmas don’t get any more basic than this. If I make you happy I’ll be making myself unhappy. If I make myself happy I’ll be making you unhappy. So what do we do? We’ve got the following options.

  1. I bite the bullet and do ____ for you.  Doing ___ for you will be hard, difficult, and nauseating for me NOT because I don’t love you or don’t want you to be happy. It’s just that doing _____ is really hard for me. I can try but there’s no guarantee that I’ll be able to sustain it. I may develop resentment and anger. I may eventually tire of doing ____. To set me up for success could you please express appreciation once in a while for my sacrifices to make you happy? I find it highly de-motivating when I finally get around to doing ____ and hear, “It took you long enough. What do you want, a parade?” Well, not a parade, but at least a sincere thank you. And could you please withhold the anger and scorn when I do ___ imperfectly or when I forget? Could you even the score once in a while by doing something that you maybe find unpleasant but that you know makes me happy?
  2. I bite the bullet and refuse to do ___ for you. This means me learning to inure myself to your anger and disdain. It means me getting thicker skin when you criticize me. It means I stick to my convictions, principles, and preferences and learn to live with the emotional and relational ramifications. I become Teflon so your emotional manipulation doesn’t stick. I don’t chose this out of spite or hate. It’s just that I really don’t like doing ___. I resign myself to living with an unhappy, hard to please spouse.
  3. You bite the bullet and relinquish your desire for me to do ____. I know this isn’t what you want. For some inexplicable reason(s) you like ___. But I’m asking you to stop asking, wanting, or expecting me to do ____. Or you do ___ yourself. Or you find someone to do ____ for you. If you accept my inability/unwillingness to do ___ this means you’ll have to learn to live with unmet needs/wants. This may require coaching, counseling, therapy, behavioral modification, spiritual growth, or plain old-fashioned self-control. It’s probably as hard for you to understand why I find ___ so unpleasant as it is for me to understand why you find ___ so pleasant. I guess we’re just two different individuals with different preferences.
  4. You bite the bullet and continue to pressure me to do ____. If living with an unhappy spouse is more important than living without _____ then this is the option for you. Warning: if I do finally succumb to your pressure and do ____ please don’t whine, “You’re not sincere! You don’t mean it! You’re just doing that because I made you.” Of course I’m not sincere. I’m just doing this to get you off my back.
  5. We learn to live with this impasse. If I refuse to do ___ and you refuse to stop wanting me to do ____ we’re stuck. One option is for us to accept this stuck-ness like some people learn to accept aging, bad knees or unpredictable weather. Some couples do learn to live with unmet desires/demands/requests. If the price of options 1 – 4 is too great, option 5 is the our only option. It’s “agree to disagree” time. This means you quit saying, “If you really loved me you’d do____” and I quit saying, “If you really loved me you’d quit asking me to do ____.” Let’s call a truce. I won’t do ___ and you’ll stop asking me to do ___.  I’ll continue to show my love and care for you by doing other things that are within my capabilities and desires. But ____ is out of the question.
  6. We split up. If doing ___ is a non-negotiable for you, and if my not doing ____ is non-negotiable, our only option is to go our separate ways. This will of course be painful and tragic on many levels. But if options 1-5 don’t work we could try option 6 at least temporarily. If we choose option 6 let’s be very clear on both the timetable and ground rules for spending, dating, parenting, living, etc. while living separately.
  7. We take turns. I may be willing to do ____ on occasion if you lower your expectation that I do it 24/7. In return for my occasional capitulation I’ll want you to do things for me that I find pleasant and enjoyable. If I feel I’m making all the sacrifices I may burn out or get resentful.

When Making Me Happy Makes You Unhappy

I must admit, I’m totally shocked that you’re unwilling to make me happy. I thought this is what marriage is all about! How dare you say making me happy by doing ____ will make you unhappy! If you really loved me you’d find the oomph to do ___ and quit being so selfish.  If I knew you didn’t want to make me happy I’d not have married you! You are cruel and unloving. This is borderline abuse. But since I’m willing to negotiate here are our options.

  1. I give up my desire for you to do ____. This is both counter intuitive and crazy but because I’m willing to take the high road I’ll explore this. It’ll mean me NOT expecting my happiness to come from you. It’ll mean me learning to live with an un-supportive and negligent spouse. It’ll maybe mean therapy and counseling for me to overcome anxiety, anger, resentment, and hatred. Now that I think of it, I’ve made so many compromises and concessions already that I’m not sure I can lower my expectations any more. I’m at rock bottom already. Either you do ____ or resign yourself to living with an unhappy spouse. You can’t not do ___ and have a happy spouse at the same time. The choice is yours.
  2. I do not give up my desire for you to do ___. If this makes you mad or unhappy that merely proves how selfish you are. I’ll just inure myself to your narcissism and thoughtlessness. If you complain about me pushing you to do ____ I’ll learn to live with your complaints. That’ll be my cross to bear. If you get angry and call me controlling, manipulative, or demanding, oh well. I’ll be like Teflon so your unkind remarks don’t stick.
  3. You give up your stubbornness and do ____. This of course is my preference. I don’t see why doing ___ is so hard. I love ____. Most people I know love ____. I can only conclude that your unwillingness to do ___ is motivated by selfishness, a dysfunctional family of origin, sin, or worst of all—lack of love and caring. To prove that you do love me just do this one simple thing: _____. I’m not asking you to walk on water. Just do ____ and make me feel loved.
  4. We learn to live with the impasse. I’m not sure I can do this. Your unwillingness to do ___ is so fraught with negative meaning for me that this may be a deal breaker. If I were you I suggest you go back and consider option 3 again.
  5. We split up. It’d be much easier not seeing you refuse to do ___ to make me happy than seeing you every day NOT doing ____. I’d be more unhappy living with a partner who refuses to comply with my one tiny request than living alone. Either way, I don’t get ____. But if I’m not going to get ___ I’d rather you not be around to remind me you’re not giving me ____.
  6. We take turns. I can’t believe I’m even mentioning this. This is a marriage; we’re not supposed to be keeping score. You’re saying you’ll scratch my back if I scratch yours? Why should I scratch your back since you’re so unwilling to scratch mine? My desire that you do ____ is logical, sane, normal, healthy, and not asking that much. Your reasons for not doing ___ don’t even make sense. Since you’re not willing to give up your stubbornness and do ___ I’m not sure I can stay in this relationship. I may need to go back and consider option 5 again.