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.


Ambivalence in Marriage

By the time a person becomes ambivalent in their marriage things have reached crisis mode. In my fourteen years helping couples resolve marriage conflicts I’ve met hundreds of individuals who have reached a crossroad, are rethinking their future, and are contemplating divorce. They haven’t decided to end the marriage yet but they’re no longer 100% “in” the marriage.

While every ambivalent person is different and every marriage has its own history and unique set of problems, there’s one thing that every ambivalent person has: misery. Never have I heard an ambivalent person say, “This is fun, I want to be ambivalent for the rest of my life.” No way! It’s a very uncomfortable place to be.

So they come to a marriage counselor and ask, “Should I leave or stay?”

While the advice-giving part of me wants to respond with an answer, I resist that temptation and take the question-asking approach instead. I tell them, “I don’t get to vote on your marriage but I would love to help you weigh your options.” This makes them and not me the decision maker, it makes them less dependent on others for advice, and it protects me from giving bad advice.

Here are the questions I ask the ambivalent with a short list of possible answers.

What are the costs of staying ambivalent?

“Prolonged misery.”

“Unhappy spouse.”*

“My ambivalence feeds my partner’s ambivalence.”

“Insecure kids.”

“Being in a wobbly limbo land of loving my partner but not being in love.”

“Anxiety. Both options (staying in the marriage or proceeding with a divorce) will lead to misery.”

“Fear of the unknown. I feel unstable and out of control.”

“It costs me nothing and gives me control over my partner.” (Some people call this marital sadism).

What can your partner do to woo you back into the marriage?

“Nothing. It’d be too little, too late.”

“Plenty” (at which point the ambivalent spouse gives a long list of complaints from “stop abusing me” to “lose weight)”.

“If they make the changes I’ve been asking them to make for years I’ll be angry! Why does it take a possible divorce for them finally to get to work on our relationship?! Don’t they love me enough to make changes without a threat?”

“Nothing. My heart is dead, my emotions are cold, my walls are thick, and my love is long gone.”

“Nothing. My partner’s offenses are too great to ever forgive” (at which point we weigh the potential cost of bitterness).

“Nothing. I’ve found a new soul mate.” (When a third party disrupts a marriage disentangling is very, very difficult).

When you first met your future partner how’d they woo you into their orbit?

At this point I’m hoping there will be some fond memories, funny stories, or recollection of the good times they had.

If the ambivalent can’t recall anything good about their partner or their history it’s almost certain a divorce is in the works (this has been verified by marriage researcher John Gottman).

What are the costs of pursuing a divorce?

“It’ll tweak our kids.”

“It’ll cost an arm and a leg” (reminding me of the joke, “Marriage is grand; divorce is twenty grand”).

“We’ll lose the house.”

“I’ll have to re-enter the dating scene which is scary.”

“I’ll have a new identity: divorced.”

“It’ll feed my guilt (or bitterness, or anger, or fault finding).”

“I might be doing something God, my partner, and my friends hate.”

What changes could you make that might rekindle love for your spouse?

“I know my spouse didn’t spouse change, I did.”

“My spouse is still magnetic but I the metal nail have turned to wood…I’m simply not attracted to him/her anymore.”

“Plenty. There’s a big likelihood that the things my partner does that drive me crazy are reactions to things I do that drive them crazy.”

“Forgive, accept our differences, lower my expectations, drink less, stay home more, do a better job at meeting their needs, give up my sense of entitlement, increase my tolerance and resiliency, not make them responsible for my anxiety, jealousy, anger, or depression.” (These words are music to a marriage counselor’s ears).

“I can act as if I love and am committed to my spouse and hope my emotions catch up.”

Let me end this blog by violating my commitment not to tell people what to do. Here is some friendly advice. If your spouse says “We need marriage counseling,” pay attention. Ignore them at your own risk. If your partner becomes ambivalent the work it takes to salvage the marriage becomes a hundred times harder.

*Options for the spouse of the ambivalent will be covered in a future blog post.

Conflict-Creating and Conflict-Reducing Comments

“Of course I’m right. I’m always right.”

Avoid Conflict-Creating Comments

Resolving conflict begins by recognizing and eliminating your contributions to an argument. If you don’t think you contribute at all, then this exercise will be easy. Show the following list of comments to a person with whom you have recurring conflict. Ask them if they’ve heard you say any of them. If not, cool! If so, um, not so cool.

  1. “I am right you are wrong and that’s that!”
  2. “My point of view is the right point of view!”
  3. “Your intentions are terrible!”
  4. “You started it!”
  5. “Why didn’t you prevent this conflict from happening?!”
  6. “I know what you’re thinking, feeling, and/or assuming.”
  7. “I know all I need to know about what happened!”
  8. “I’ve got to persuade you that I’m right!”
  9. “What you did was wrong!”
  10. “You make me mad (guilty, miserable, depressed, frustrated).”
  11. “Your actions impact me negatively so cut ’em out!”
  12. “To keep the peace I’ll keep my feelings to myself.”
  13. “You created my bad feelings!”
  14. “You’re responsible for my emotions!”
  15. “You must understand how I feel!”
  16. “It’s up to you to prevent all future conflicts!”
  17. “Ignore emotions and stick to facts!”
  18. “You must learn about my emotions!”
  19. “I am either competent or incompetent, I can’t be both.”
  20. “I am either good or bad, I can’t be both.”
  21. “I am either lovable or unlovable, I can’t be both.”
  22. “I am only trying to help.”
  23. “You’re so stubborn I need to get aggressive with you.”
  24. “You’re so naïve I need to teach you how life works.”
  25. “You’re selfish, manipulative, and controlling so I withdraw!”
  26. “How can you be so irrational?”
  27. “If you loved me you’d change.”
  28. “You shouldn’t hurt or feel bad because I didn’t mean it.”
  29. “You hurt me intentionally!”
  30. “Our opinions differ and since we can’t both be right, you’re wrong!”

Practice Conflict Reducing Questions

Here are questions that deescalate conflict. Learning how to reduce conflict is hard but important. Show this list to a person with whom you have recurring conflict and ask them to choose five that they wish you’d use more often.

  1. “What is important to you in this situation?”
  2. “What’s it like from your point of view?”
  3. “What are your intentions?”
  4. “How did I contribute to this conflict?”
  5. “I wonder why didn’t I see this conflict coming?”
  6. “I think I know where you’re coming from but I’m not sure.”
  7. “What do I not understand about your point of view?”
  8. “What’s your side of the story?”
  9. “What have I done that is wrong?”
  10. “What is my impact on you?”
  11. “If you continue to wound me I’ll be forced to withdraw.”
  12. (to self) “What am I feeling in this situation?”
  13. “Your behaviors trigger not cause my bad feelings.”
  14. “I wonder how I can better manage my emotions?”
  15. “What are your feeling in this situation?”
  16. “How can we prevent this from happening again?”
  17. “Emotions are natural; can we discuss them?”
  18. “Teach me about your emotions; what are you feeling?!”
  19. “I am both competent and incompetent.”
  20. “I am both good and bad.”
  21. “I am both lovable and unlovable.”
  22. “You are a complex person and I’ve got a lot to learn.”
  23. “Your self-esteem is important to me.”
  24. “Why are you hurt? I’ll bet you’ve got info that I need to understand.”
  25. “I actually don’t know what your intentions are. What are they?”
  26. “Because we have different perspectives, both matter. What’s yours?”
  27. “I feel _____ when you engage in ______ behaviors.”
  28. “What’s getting in the way of stopping the things that irritate us?”
  29. “What does this look like from your point of view?”
  30. “My persistence isn’t working, is it? What would work?”

2009 © text and picture, Erik Johnson

The “You do it, too!” Defense

If you’re ever accused of doing something inappropriate, irritating, or wrong, I do not recommend using the “You do it, too!” defense. Here’s what it sounds like in some of its various permutations.

“You’re being rude!” “Well, you’re rude to me!”

“You’re so negative.” “Like you aren’t?”

“You misunderstand me.” “And you misunderstand me!”

“You’re so angry.”  “Don’t deny it; you get angry, too!”

“You’re spoiling the kids.”  “So do you!”

“You drink too much.”   “And last New Year’s Eve you didn’t?!”

“You push my buttons.”  “Because you push mine.”

“All you do is argue!”   “You started it.”

If these exchanges seem rare and far-fetched consider yourself fortunate. On the other hand, if they hit close to home, read on.

I watch conflicted people fight with the same attention an umpire watches pitches in baseball. If the folly of the “You do it, too!” approach isn’t apparent, allow me to clarify. This approach is ill-advised for the following reasons.

  1. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
  2. It leads to impasse, log jam, and stalled negotiations.
  3. It triggers defensiveness in your disputant.
  4. It’s a childish way to rationalize, justify, and excuse childish behavior.
  5. It’s irresponsible; if we don’t acknowledge our contribution to a conflict things will never get better.

What’s the alternative? The next time you’re on the receiving end of a “You” accusation replace defensiveness with curiosity. Some common phrases that help deescalate conflict.

“I do?”


“My bad!”

“I didn’t know that.”

“I wasn’t aware of that.”

“I’ll look at my contribution. Will you look at yours?”

“What is it like to live (work, commute, eat) with me?”

“There might be a grain of truth to this. Lemme think about it.”

“I don’t see me that way but I’ll try to look at me from your point of view.”

If your disputant is used to hearing you use the “You do it, too!” defense, they’ll be pleasantly shocked if you try the curious approach. I highly recommend it.