Dating the One You Married, Part 11
Resolving Conflicts the Right Way
Willard F. Harley, Jr. PhD
Sherry and Todd had made quite a bit of progress in restoring their feeling of romantic love for each other . . . until they were faced with a conflict that would not be resolved with one of them giving in.
Todd wanted to buy a sailboat and he wanted it as soon as possible. Sherry felt that they couldn’t afford it, that it would be too much trouble to maintain, and that it was too soon to consider buying it. After all, they had been sailing together on Saturdays for less than a month. They might get tired of sailing and prefer to do something else on Saturday afternoons.
Should she have given in and agreed to buy it? Or, should he have given up on the purchase as soon as he could see that she didn’t agree?
If they had not purchased a sailboat, Todd would have been resentful every time they rented one. He might have been so resentful, that he would not have wanted to sail at all unless it was his own boat.
But if they had purchased a sailboat, Sherry would have been resentful when they emptied their savings account to buy it and then faced an emergency expense two months later; she would have been resentful when it would cost more to maintain it than they had anticipated; and she would have been resentful when Todd became bored with sailing and wanted to go camping with his friends instead.
That’s the problem with capitulation – it creates resentment.
Remember how they had decided to buy a house instead of renting an apartment? Todd capitulated after they had a big fight. He let Sherry buy the house, which he thought was a big mistake. From then on, he was resentful about the house and was unwilling to help maintain it. That resentment spread into household tasks and childcare, which he would have done cheerfully if they had rented an apartment. His resentment was so overpowering that it made him unwilling to help Sherry with just about everything.
Todd was resentful about buying a house that he didn't want. But there's another type of resentment that he had just experienced: Not being able to buy the sailboat that he wanted. Let's call this Type A resentment and Type B resentment respectively.
If Todd had bought the sailboat with Sherry's reluctant agreement, he would have avoided Type B resentment. But Sherry would have fallen victim to Type A resentment, just as Todd had done when they bought their house.
I've just described the two most common forms of resentment in marriage. Resentment when made to do something you don't want to do (Type A), and resentment when prevented from doing something you want to do (Type B).
Which is worse, Type A or Type B resentment? Type A is worse because once the act is done, it can't be undone. Your spouse's gain is your loss, and your spouse forced you to do it. You'll forever remember your spouse's thoughtlessness.
Type B resentment, however simply puts off a final decision until an agreement is made. You may feel resentment while trying to find a resolution, but once it's found, resentment is gone.
In Part 6 of this series, I introduced a rule to help couples resolve conflicts the right way with the possibility of temporary resentment, but no permanent resentment. That rule is the Policy of Joint Agreement: Never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse.
By applying this rule to the sailboat conflict, Sherry and Todd would not buy one until they were both in enthusiastic agreement about the purchase. That would create Type B resentment for Todd. After all, he wouldn’t be able to buy the boat right away.
That was exactly what happened. When Sherry objected to the idea, he was deeply resentful, so resentful that it ruined their date.
But that’s not where the story ends. The discussion should then continue until an enthusiastic agreement is reached, and when that happens, Todd’s resentment would disappear.
If they had purchased the sailboat without Sherry’s agreement, she would have probably felt resentful at the time of the purchase, and whenever they went sailing together. If they ever had a disagreement, her resentment about the sailboat purchase would come up. After the purchase, there would be no turning back: Permanent resentment.
But if they didn’t purchase the sailboat, Todd’s resentment would last only as long as it would take to come to an enthusiastic agreement: Temporary resentment.
The Scourge of Capitulation
There’s not a spouse on earth that has not occasionally given in to the wishes of the other spouse. But for Sherry and Todd, it was about the only way that they could get along with each other while they were dating. Each of them agreed to do whatever the other one wanted to do.
That plan of alternating capitulation worked until they were married. After that, their conflicts were too complex for capitulation to be tolerated. When they stopped giving in to each other, their marriage fell apart.
The justification for capitulation is simple: if you care enough, you’ll do what it takes to make your spouse happy. The more you care, the more you are willing to sacrifice your own interests.
The problem with capitulation is that the gain of one spouse is at the loss of the other. Some consider it to be a romantic ideal, that care is demonstrated by how much a spouse can suffer for the other spouse. The more you suffer the more you care.
But marriage should not be a unilateral relationship, where care is given in only one direction. Instead, it should be a bilateral relationship where care for each other is shown simultaneously. Instead of one spouse gaining at the other’s expense, they search for ways to both gain at once.
When we were discussing the Love Bank earlier, I made the point that everything you and your spouse do will affect each other. You make either deposits or withdrawals. So, when one spouse capitulates to the other, withdrawals are made from the other spouse’s Love Bank account. And when you consider the resentment effect, Love Bank withdrawals can be made whenever that spouse thinks about what they did.
An example of capitulation that most wives have experienced is letting their husbands have sex with them any way he wants to have it. Sometimes it’s a gift freely given on a special occasion, but it’s certainly not the way she wants to have sex on a permanent basis.
Unfortunately, once given, the horses are out of the barn. Now he wants to have sex that way more often. She may give in once in a while at first, but eventually, most wives corral the horses and lead them back into the barn: She lets her husband know that she made a mistake to have considered that option and it will not be happening again.
Some wives, however, continue to capitulate until they find sex to be so unpleasant that they avoid it entirely. The resulting resentment touches almost every aspect of their marriage.
To avoid permanent resentment in marriage, the Policy of Joint Agreement should be followed whenever spouses make a decision. Enthusiastic agreement should be the goal whenever a conflict arises.
Sailboat or No Sailboat?
The conflict about whether or not to buy a sailboat ruined Sherry and Todd’s date because they had not yet learned how to resolve conflicts the right way. Until they were able to handle conflicts differently in the future, there would be many more ruined dates.
I explained to them why capitulation was a really bad idea, and how much trouble it had been to their marriage. But it had seemed to be the only option for them. When one wanted to do something one way, and the other wanted to do it another way, what other choices were there?
Sherry had done the right thing by rejecting Todd’s plan to buy a sailboat. She was certainly tempted to capitulate, and she felt guilty about denying him what he wanted. But she had attended enough of sessions with me to know that deposits should be made in both Love Bank accounts, and not only one.
It made her feel better to hear that Todd’s disappointment and resentment would be only temporary, while if she had agreed to the purchase, her resentment would have been permanent. So, we got right to work finding a resolution to the conflict that would make them both happy.
I introduced another one of my ten Basic Concepts to them, the Four Guidelines for Successful Negotiation. The goal of negotiation is to find a resolution to a conflict that meets the conditions of the Policy of Joint Agreement: Mutually enthusiastic agreement.
Guideline 1: Set ground rules to make negotiation pleasant and safe.
Ground Rule #1: Try to be pleasant and cheerful throughout negotiations.
Ground Rule #2: Put safety first: do not make demands, show disrespect, or become angry when you negotiate.
Ground Rule #3: If you reach an impasse where you do not seem to be getting anywhere, or if one of you is starting to make demands, show disrespect, or become angry, stop negotiating and come back to the issue later.
The first guideline helps create an environment of optimism and creativity. Since Sherry and Todd had already learned how to avoid demands, disrespect, and anger in their conversations with each other, they had a head start. Todd had said nothing after Sherry expressed reservations about buying a sailboat because he knew that anything he said would be a Love Buster. So, he kept quiet.
Eventually, he would learn how to express his disappointment in a more appropriate way. But for now, that was the best he could do.
Guideline 2: Identify the conflict from both perspectives.
After the conflict is stated, Todd wants to buy a sailboat but Sherry is not in agreement, both spouses should express their perspectives regarding the conflict.
Todd felt that owning their own sailboat would be something that would help bring them closer together. He would not be as tempted to hunt, fish, or play poker with his friends when he had a sailboat to maintain and use recreationally with Sherry. It would improve their compatibility. Besides, he really wanted a sailboat.
Sherry expressed her concern about affording a sailboat. She felt that if they were to buy the type they had been renting it might wipe out their savings, and she didn’t want to take out a loan. She was also concerned about how much time and money would be spent maintaining the boat. All they needed to do now was to show up at the boat rental and go sailing. Furthermore, she wasn’t sure if they would continue to enjoy sailing together.
Understanding and respect for each other’s perspectives are essential for successful negotiation. As soon as one spouse expresses disrespect or disapproval of the other’s opinions, the negotiation is over. So, I wanted Todd and Sherry not only to repeat back to me the other’s concerns but also to express why those concerns made sense. I also encouraged them to abandon their former approach: capitulation.
My challenge to them was to discover a way to resolve the conflict in a way that would take both of their perspectives into account. The final result should be an enthusiastic agreement with what they had decided to do.
At the end of that session, my assignment was for them to spend a week thinking about ways to resolve their sailboat conflict.
Guideline 3: Brainstorm with abandon.
The psychological phenomenon of incubation is an amazing aid to problem-solving. By thinking about a problem for a few minutes, getting away from it, and then coming back to it later, solutions are found that would not otherwise be considered. It’s as if our brains are thinking about the problem while we’re doing something else, and then offers its solutions when we get back to it again.
I asked Sherry and Todd to let the problem incubate.
Their goal was to find a solution to the problem of buying a sailboat that would meet all of their concerns simultaneously. They were not to try to change the other spouse’s perspectives, but they could change their own if they found a good reason to do so. By thinking about it all week, their brains might find a solution that they would not have considered at the time the conflict was first identified.
They began by writing out each other’s perspectives.
1. Owning their own sailboat would help bring them closer together.
2. He would not be as tempted to hunt, fish, or playing poker with his friends when he had a sailboat to maintain and use recreationally.
3. It would improve their compatibility.
4. He would enjoy owning a sailboat.
1. They couldn’t afford a sailboat. If they didn’t take out a loan, it would wipe out their savings, and she didn’t want to take out a loan.
2. Too much time and money would be spent maintaining the boat.
3. Their interest in sailing might not last very long.
Throughout the week, they were to offer suggestions that they thought would satisfy the other spouse’s perspectives: Sherry would offer proposals that she thought would address Todd’s concerns, and he would do the same for her concerns.
The first new idea that Todd suggested was to get the facts before making a decision. Not a bad place to start. At the time of the conflict, he wanted a commitment from Sherry to go ahead with the purchase, but now he could see the wisdom in giving her information that would address her reservations. Instead of sailing that week, they did some sailboat shopping.
Sherry was surprised to find that the smaller sailboats that they had been renting were quite affordable, particularly if they bought one used. But when Todd saw bigger boats, with a cabin and an engine, that’s what he really wanted. It was clearly a budget buster as far as Sherry was concerned.
But then Todd made an astonishing suggestion. If he would stop spending money on fishing and hunting trips, and poker, would Sherry consider buying the larger sailboat? When they took the price of the boat, maintenance, and storage into account, it turned out to be just about what Todd had been spending for his weekend outings with his friends. And it wouldn’t wipe out their savings, either.
Sherry agreed with Todd that a sailboat would probably be great for their marriage, and for that reason alone, she would have been willing to go along with him on a purchase. But the brainstorming procedure that I had recommended helped them address her concerns about affordability, maintenance, and lasting interest. Now she was enthusiastic about the decision.
They ended up settling on a somewhat smaller sailboat than the one Todd had wanted most, but quite a bit larger than the ones they had been renting. It was a good place for them to start. If sailing became their primary recreational interest in the future, they might upgrade to a larger model. If not, they would sell it.
Guideline 4: Choose the solution that meets the conditions of the Policy of Joint Agreement -- mutual and enthusiastic agreement.
Most resolutions to conflicts in marriage can be changed if they do not work out as planned, and purchasing a sailboat certainly qualified for Sherry and Todd. The Policy of Joint Agreement should not only be in force at the time a decision is made, but also after the decision is made. So, even though they were both enthusiastic about buying a sailboat, if after the purchase one of them felt that it had turned out to be a bad idea, they should sell the sailboat and go back to brainstorming.
When Sherry and Todd became the proud owners of a sailboat with a small cabin and motor, they were both very excited about it. They had enough sailing experience to take it out for the first time without a glitch.
If anything were to go wrong with their decision – costing more than they had anticipated to maintain it or losing interest – neither of them would feel resentful about the original decision because it had been done with their enthusiastic agreement. If, on the other hand, Sherry had agreed to buy the sailboat reluctantly, any problems with the sailboat would have triggered her resentment.
It makes a lot of sense to make marital lifestyle decisions with a mutual enthusiastic agreement or to put off the decision until one can be found. Because a joint agreement takes the perspectives of both spouses into account, they are usually much wiser than anything either spouse could consider alone. They also have the advantage of avoiding resentment if it doesn’t turn out well.
But the most important reason for mutual enthusiastic agreement is that its decisions create a lifestyle that makes deposits into both spouses’ Love Banks simultaneously.
Sherry and Todd were now in love, and their lifestyle had changed to help them stay in love. Conflicts no longer led to arguments, but instead to negotiation.
Mutual respect for each other’s opinions gave them a much greater understanding of how to go about addressing conflict. Instead of trying to force a change in each other’s perspectives, they looked at the bigger picture of how to incorporate their perspectives into a resolution. Whenever a conflict would now arise, they would already have some ideas as to how to resolve it for each other.
The next series of articles on Dating the One You Married will address special cases. In a way, it will be like frequently asked questions articles. They will deal with common obstacles to dating and how to overcome them.