“I will not agree to disagree”, said a husband to his wife in the middle of their therapy session. We were discussing an issue with their child, and their very different parenting styles were creating havoc in a typically calm marriage. While they were able to discuss most disagreements with resolution or at least agree to disagree, this parenting issue was different. It was a necessary fight – agreeing on an acceptable set of parenting rules was necessary to prevent ongoing fights and resentment.
People tend to view couple conflict as a bad thing. Not true! Mental health professionals know that arguments are unavoidable, and some are essential. But which fights are essential? How you squeeze the toothpaste tube is probably not a necessary fight. Where bicycles are stored over winter shouldn’t warrant a fight. How you load the dishwasher, park your car, hang your towels, and make your bed are minor differences we can accept without argument. However, over the years, we have stumbled across a few topics where an argument might be necessary. Every couple has a unique set of circumstances. You and your partner might agree on the following topic list of necessary fights; if so, kudos! But if you’re not on the same page in the following areas, you might start thinking about fair fighting.
Money. The #1 argument among couples in many studies. There must be agreement on how to pool money. How much should each partner contribute to basic living costs? Does each partner pay the same amount regardless of income? Should there be a shared account? Should there also be individual accounts? It doesn’t matter how couples share expenses, but it matters greatly that they both agree. Couples also need to agree on how much money they can spend without discussion. Is it $20? Is it $2,000? We’re not concerned with the amount; we’re concerned with the agreement.
In-laws. This is a tough one for many couples. How partners treat each other’s family members matters. Where they go for holidays matters. Whether in-laws can show up without announcing themselves has to be an agreed-upon decision. Is equal time with in-laws important? Perhaps you prefer your in-laws. Again, it doesn’t matter how it’s handled, it matters that both partners agree.
Parenting. The importance of a united front cannot be overstated. How much freedom and responsibility children have and how they’re disciplined must be a topic of conversation. Partners won’t agree on all the details, but they must agree on the basics for the benefit of their marriage and children.
Sex. We can’t leave it off the list. Meeting each other‘s physical needs and experiencing intimate connection is part of marriage. It’s something that must be discussed and respected. It can’t be forced or demanded.
You knew from the title these would not be easy topics. We encourage couples to talk about these areas one at a time until they feel comfortable. The initial conversations have the goal of understanding each other’s perspective. Whether one agrees or disagrees with their partner’s perspective doesn’t matter at this point. The sole goal initially is to be able to summarize a partner’s view accurately. Couples need to ask their partners if their summary was accurate. If not, they need to keep at it. We all want to be understood.
The next step is to understand why their partner has that perceptive. Is it a reflection of upbringing? Prior experience? Insecurity? Partners need to try understanding without judgement.
The next step, best done during a separate conversation, is to find common ground. Surely, there are some aspects of the situation each partner agrees upon. Perhaps both can agree there isn’t enough in savings or that one in-law is particularly difficult, or that physical touch is important.
If couples can move to the next step of compromise without yelling, name-calling, or stomping out of the room, they’re in great shape. Again, disagreements don’t have to be resolved in one sitting. If the disagreements are so heated that couples avoid them entirely, a therapist should be considered. Avoided disagreements can fester. Remember, some fights are necessary.
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