Latest update: March 5th, 2012
In evaluating three styles of communication: competitive, avoiding and compromising, being competitive or avoiding conflict share the same risk of alienating the other person. A competitive person tends to blame his spouse for his feelings and refuses to take responsibility for his own actions. It’s always the other person’s fault for what is going wrong in their lives. The avoider, however, has the opposite problem; it’s always her own fault and she feels responsible for everything that goes wrong in the relationship.
The third style, to compromise, creates a foundation for a successful marriage. Once you are able to wield it effectively, it can make the difference between an average relationship and one that the world will admire. It won’t be easy. Anything that is worth doing is hard and takes work. Compromise is a part of daily life, after all. To make it work for you and your relationship, there needs to be an open channel of communication. This will allow you to understand how compromise affects you both. If you can do that, you can use it to power your relationship far beyond the bounds of normal play and end up with a marriage where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
In any relationship, compromise means give and take, and should be a part of daily life for all couples. You may be the talkative one in a relationship, but conversation with your spouse should be 50/50. For example, you may want to spend your yom tov with your parents or chol hamoed with your in-laws, but a bit of both is what makes a relationship work. Compromise is allowing for things to get in the way of your ideal daily life for the sake of your relationship. What may seem like a disadvantage at first, quickly changes into one of the greatest advantages of your life, when you realize that from compromise comes the base of your relationship.
The best way to embrace and understand compromise in your relationship is to talk about it. An open dialogue is important for both parties. Keeping your feelings bottled up doesn’t do anyone any good. You need to share how you feel about the compromises you are both making for the sake of your relationship. Find out how they feel about their position and try and understand the need for balance and fairness. In the end, compromise usually means that you win some and you lose some, but you both get to come out ahead, together.
How does a person move towards cooperation and avoid maintaining either a competitive or avoidance style of communication? In order for effective communication and conflict resolution to occur, there must be an understanding about rules that will facilitate or impair the process. Here are some of the principles that couples can use to reduce conflict in their marriage:
1. Try to take a problem-solving attitude toward issues, versus one of blame. Problem solving is much more practical and leads people in a different—and more productive—direction than blame. Assigning responsibility is useful, to the degree it helps to generate solutions. But blame has a component of punishment attached.
2. Learn to take a “time out,” in order to cool your anger until you’re able to be responsible for your behavior. A time out can be used to do things that allow you to gain self-control and to mellow out. You could exercise (walk, jog, bicycle), do relaxation poses – stretching, or yoga, or say Tehillim.
3. Make use of “cool down” activities – less formal than time outs, cool downs can be momentary breaks that allow both of you to catch your breath and de-escalate. You could offer to make a cup of tea or coffee, or a sandwich. You could propose a walk around the block. You could suggest, “Hey, let’s stop and take a deep breath.” Or say, “I’m feeling pretty tense. Give me a moment here. How about if I get both of us something to drink, so I can calm down, and we can continue to have a good discussion?” It usually doesn’t work if you say, “Hey, calm down!” You’re actions are likely to be perceived as a put-down and an attempt to control the other person’s behavior.
In some cases however, compromise may not be possible. That may be due to the fact that beyond communication styles another level is hiding behind the surface. When you look beyond “why” people are arguing, you can often uncover “what” they are really arguing about. For example, a wife is very picky about the types of birthday presents her husband buys for her. She never seems happy about her gifts and leaves her husband feeling that he is inferior. One possibility is that she has an outstanding artistic sense and expects that every piece of jewelry fit in perfectly with her collection. Another possibility is that she feels her husband is not affectionate enough and is really looking for more love.
Take Meir, 45, and Leah, 44, for example. They came to resolve their complaint that neither was fully “engaged” in their marriage. Meir was a successful lawyer who worked long and hard hours at his firm. He believed that he was a good husband who provided for his wife’s every need. They had a large house, several cars, went away twice a year on exotic vacations, etc. Meir also described himself as an “avoider” and his wife as being confrontational. Leah, on the other hand was busy running their children’s school’s PTA, studying towards a second degree in art therapy and taking courses in their local shul. In short, Meir and Leah never saw each other, but when they did, they were always fighting about money, Meir’s “sloppiness” and how to renovate their home.
At first, I tried to work through their conflict under the assumption that Meir was avoiding his wife, and Leah was too confrontational. After several sessions I saw that we weren’t making any headway and I decided to probe even deeper. It turned out that the real problem in their marriage was a lack of affection caused by their inability to spend quality time together. Each was living as a separate entity under the same roof. They lacked the aspect of dodi, and were missing the closeness needed to sustain a happy marriage. For Meir and Leah marriage turned into a business deal, an agreement where each side did the minimal amount needed to continue the relationship while sharing no real joy or excitement about one another.
Meir and Leah were not just fighting about matching pastel colors or the size of their chandeliers. They were fighting about the loneliness in their marriage and using the walls of their home as their battleground.
When people argue endlessly about the same topics, it is a sign that they are really talking about something much deeper. There may even exist unsolvable problems and differences that pop up as conflicts over money, education or work stress. In reality, their problems can’t be solved through changing their style of communication. Couples who can’t break their vitriolic patterns need to discover their deeper wishes and desires that are unfulfilled or being denied by their spouse.
Some of a person’s deeper wishes may include:
Wanting more love and affection. Desiring greater control in their lives. Getting respect from people. Wanting to feel secure about their relationship. Desire to live a long life. Financial security. Overcoming past hurts i.e. divorced parents, death in family, loss of money, failure.
Often it is these wishes that fuel unresolved conflicts. For example, arguing over raising children may be more than just a fight about changing diapers. The daily stress of attending to a child’s needs may be exacerbated by a wish that their child will succeed in school or that they will become a doctor, lawyer or wealthy businessman. Or, for parents of a child who tends to act out, they may harbor a deep-seated wish that their child will be perfect and never struggle or compromise their values. Sometimes you find couples arguing endlessly about their in-laws, when in actuality they are upset about the lack of affection in their marriage.
Next week, part 20, How Your Marriage Affects Your Children
Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, is the Executive Director of Shalom Task Force and author of a “First Aid for Jewish Marriages: Eight Steps To Enhancing the Most Important Relationship in Your Life.” For more information about Shalom Task Force, please visit www.shalomtaskforce.org. You can e-mail questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author: Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, Marriage and Family Therapy, is an expert in marriage counseling, pre-marital education, and helping teens in crisis with offices in Flatbush, Cedarhurst, and Crown Heights. He is a certified PAIRS instructor, and trained as a Level 1, Emotionally Focused Therapist at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, and is a member of AASECT. He is the author of At Risk – Never Beyond Reach and First Aid For Jewish Marriages. To watch his free videos on marriage and parenting and for appointments visit: www.JewishMarriageSupport.com or call 646-428-4723
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