Differences of opinion don’t destroy relationships – it’s how a couple deals with their inevitable differences that counts.
Every couple disagrees from time to time. Perfect compatibility is not possible, but sensibly working though incompatibility is. The difference between a happy couple and an unhappy couple is the way in which they handle their disagreements. Thus, in order to grow and be successful in our intimate relationships, we must adopt healthy coping strategies for dealing with our differences.
Talk to any set of grandparents (or great-grandparents) whose relationship has withstood the tests of time, and they will tell you that the best relationships are not just about the good times you share, they’re also about the obstacles you go through together, the disagreements you compromise on, and the fact that you still say “I love you” in the end. And loving someone isn’t just about saying it every day, it’s about showing it every day through actions and behaviors, even when you and your partner aren’t seeing things eye to eye.
Based on my 15-year relationship with Angel, and our joint experience coaching thousands of individuals and couples over the past decade, here’s what we’ve learned about how happy couples deal with disagreements:
1. They both take responsibility.
When you deny responsibility in every relationship disagreement, all you’re really doing is blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, “The problem is never me, it’s always you.” This denial of responsibility just escalates the argument, because there’s a complete breakdown of communication.
So take responsibility for your actions. Take responsibility for your relationship – the good times and the bad. Work with your partner. Communicate. Blaming them is a copout that accomplishes nothing. Either you both take equal ownership of the problems you two encounter together, or the problems will own both of you.
2. They are committed to dealing with disagreements, positively.
Often it can be easiest to run from a disagreement, especially if you’re not a confrontational person by nature. But remember, this isn’t about you or whether or not you feel like dealing with your differences. It’s about what your relationship needs in order to grow and thrive in the long run; so put these needs ahead of your own. Both partners must be committed to dealing with their disagreements, because running from them will only make matters more difficult to deal with down the road.
One of the most effective tools couples can use to ease the process of dealing with disagreements is using positive language. Relationships flourish when both people are able to share their innermost feelings and thoughts in a positive way. One effective method of doing this during an argument is to do your best to avoid using the word “you” and try to use the word “I” instead. This makes it much easier to express feelings and much harder to inadvertently attack the other person. So… Instead of saying, “You are wrong,” try saying, “I don’t understand.” Instead of telling them, “You always…” try saying “I often feel…” It’s a subtle shift that can make a dig difference.
3. They attack their disagreements, not each other.
Disagreements are fine, and arguments are too. These are natural, focused reactions to a person’s decisions or behavior. But when disagreements and arguments snowball into global attacks on the other person, and not on their decisions or behavior, this spells trouble. For example: “They didn’t call me when they said they would because they forgot, but because they’re a horrible, wretched, evil person.”
Even when it’s hard to think clearly in the heat of the moment, you have to take a deep breath and remember that your partner is on your team. Always support one another, even when you don’t see eye to eye. Don’t take your stress out on the each other. Keep your focus on the problematic disagreement and attack it together by talking it out and reaching a compromise.
4. They practice intentional communication.
Your partner is not a mind reader. Share your thoughts openly. Give them the information they need rather than expecting them to know it all. The more that remains unspoken, the greater the risk for problems. Start communicating clearly. Don’t try to read their mind, and don’t make them try to read yours. Most problems, big and small, within a relationship start with broken communication.
Also, don’t listen so you can reply – listen to understand. Open your ears and mind to your partner’s concerns and opinions without judgment. Look at things from your partner’s perspective as well as your own. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Even if you don’t understand exactly where they’re coming from, you can still respect them. So turn your body towards them, look them in the eyes, turn off the computer, and put away your phone. Doing so demonstrates that you actually want to communicate with your partner and hear what they have to say; this reinforces the sort of supportive environment that’s crucial for conflict resolution. (Read The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.)
5. They let each other save face.
My grandmother once told me, “When somebody backs themselves into a corner, look the other way until they get themselves out; and then act as though it never happened.” Allowing your partner to save face in this way, and not reminding them of what they already know is not their most intelligent behavior, is an act of great kindness. This is possible when you realize that your partner behaves in such ways because they are in a place of momentary suffering. They react to their own thoughts and feelings and their behavior often has nothing directly to do with you.
At some point we all inevitably have unreasonable mood swings. We all have bad days. Giving your partner the space to save face, and not taking things personally when they’re occasionally upset, cranky or having a bad day is a priceless gift.
Even if you are unquestionably right and your partner is unquestionably wrong, when emotions are flying high and you force them to lose face, you’re simply bruising their ego. You’re accomplishing nothing but diminishing their own worth in their own eyes. Do your best to let your partner preserve their dignity. Give them space, let the emotions settle, and then have a rational conversation using the positive communication tactics discussed above in point #2.
6. They are willing to make sacrifices for each other.
The happiest intimate bonds are tied with true love, and true love involves attention, awareness, discipline, effort and being able to care about someone and sacrifice for them, continuously, in countless petty, little, unsexy ways every day. You put your arms around them and love them regardless, even when they’re not seeing things your way. And of course they do the same for you.
If you really want to know what a happy, healthy relationship is, it’s one where two people wake up every morning and say, “This is worth it. You are worth it. I am happy you are in my life.” It’s about true sacrifice. It’s about knowing that some days you will have to do things you dislike to make the one you love smile, and feeling perfectly delighted to do so.
7. They expect to disagree with each other on some things, and they’re OK with it.
Again, differences of opinion (even major ones) don’t destroy relationships – it’s how a couple deals with their inevitable differences that counts.
Some couples waste years trying to change each other’s mind, but this can’t always be done, because many of their disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences of opinion, personality or values. By fighting over these deep-seated differences, all they succeed in doing is wasting their time and running their relationship into the ground.
So how do healthy, happy couples deal with disagreements that can’t be resolved?
They accept one another as is. These couples understand that problems are an inevitable part of any long-term relationship, in the same way chronic physical difficulties are inevitable as we grow older and wiser. These problems are like a weak knee or a bad back – we may not want these problems, but we’re able to cope with them, to avoid situations that irritate them, and to develop strategies that help us deal with them. Psychologist Dan Wile said it best in his book After the Honeymoon: “When choosing a long-term partner, you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next 10, 20 or 50 years.”
Bottom line: The foundation of love is to let those we care about be unapologetically themselves, and to not distort them to fit our own egotistical ideas of who they should be. Otherwise we fall in love only with our own fantasies, and thus miss out entirely on their true beauty. So save your relationship from needless stress. Instead of trying to change your partner, give them your support and grow together, as individuals. (Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the “Relationships” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
The floor is yours…
Which point resonated the most with you? What else would you add to this list? Do you have any personal experiences or stories to share?
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