Last week we discussed the essential skills couples need to manage conflict. This week we will explore the dreams each person has within conflict and how these influence the couple relationship. (This information was adapted from Dr. John M. Gottman and Dr. Julie Gottman, (c) 2000-2011, Bridging the Couple Chasm).
A common frustration people in a relationship have is both feeling and not being able to understand their partner. “He just doesn’t understand,” “She’s missing the point,” “He’s not listening,” “I can’t talk to her.” Part of the desire for a relationship is a deep hope of being known, accepted, and understood in such a way that in this entire world there is at least one person who “gets you” and has your back. When you don’t feel this from your love – your partner – it is hurtful and makes you want to close up against them. Conflicts turn into fights and sensitive feelings or information gets used against one another. But that is where couples have the opportunity to turn toward one another instead of away or against each other in the effort to understand where the other person is coming from. Understanding your own dreams will help you understand how to communicate this to your significant other and put you in a better position to understand theirs as well.
Think about the last several conflicts you had with your spouse. Was there a time when you really wanted them to understand something but felt you just weren’t getting through? Notice how I asked this question – not – “what were you trying to convince them of/trying to win?” but rather “what did you want them to understand?” Marriage is not a competitive sport. A friend of mine once gave me the advice before I married that, “Remember, if you always have to win then you get to go to bed with a loser!” That’s not fun. In his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail (2009), researcher Dr. John Gottman found that 69% of marital conflicts are never resolved. It appears that when you marry someone, you marry a particular set of problems that don’t go away. This is important to know because most of us are spending 100% of our energy in trying to resolve something with our partner that has only a 31% chance of working out.
So, it is important to first know is this a resolvable problem? My wife and I carry out dozens of these decisions each week – who picks up the kids, who’s doing homework tonight, how much do spend on a vacation, etc. Examples of unresolvable problems are different for everyone but might include situations like – feelings or loyalties to extended family members, custody matters and child discipline in blended families, and religious convictions. In those situations you may simply never agree together on an issue and this is where understanding one another’s dreams comes into play.
In the example of child discipline in blended families there can be strong feelings by both partners when it comes to boundaries and discipline in the home. The important factor is to listen to your partner and try and understand their position and why they feel a certain way. Avoid the pressure to make your partner take your position – what you want to focus on is understanding their point of view or helping your partner understand your point of view. Instead of gridlock on the issue of discipline try and move toward a dialogue where you both feel safe to express your feelings without the concern of being judged, criticized or pressured.
If you want your partner to understand you then you first need to understand yourself. Why do you feel so strongly? Some adults remember the feelings they had when their parents separated and divorced and this affects them now in raising their own children with a new partner. What dreams were lost? Has this created a determination to never let something happen in your current relationship? What new things do you want in your new family? What do you picture in your mind as a dream or hope that you wish your partner could understand?
On the other hand, your partner may have not experienced divorce and has long held convictions over how children are to be raised whether they are step-children or children born to you both. What were the dreams you had then and that you now want to fulfill in your current family? If your dream is fulfilled what is the payoff or end result you hope for? What do you picture in your mind that you want your partner to understand?
You will get farther in creating a calm and accepting atmosphere in your relationship if you can get closer to your partner’s dreams and hopes by understanding them. Withhold judgment. “That will never work!” and “That’s a pipedream!” won’t get you far. Honor each other’s dreams. Who else can? And when you are able to listen and validate each other’s feelings you will create a dialogue in the midst of issues and problems that don’t necessarily have an immediate answer but do need your combined attention and mutual understanding.
Next week, it’s handling the “after” of a hurtful conflict.
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