Dear Dr. Alasko: Our marriage has survived for over twenty years and for a lot of the time we get along pretty well, but we have a chronic problem. We get into arguments over the same old issues: Money. Our kids. Even food. We recognize that we're really in an ongoing power struggle - but neither of us is willing to give in, and we can't seem to break this pattern. Is there something we can do?
Dear Reader: Your problem is actually common in all types of relationships. They all tend, over time, to develop hardened arguments that are really struggles over who will is going to be the "winner." And they're always extremely debilitating.
One thing I've found that helps is for partners in relationships to develop a Basic Agreement so that each time you have a problem, you have a foundational framework within which to deal with it.
A Basic Agreement is a set of clearly stated well-organized rules that you both promise to follow when you have a potentially troublesome issue to discuss.
Keeping your promise to each other to respect the Basic Agreement can prove a challenge. But compared to how many hours you spend every month arguing, and feeling angry and distressed afterwards, it's well worth the effort.
Let's start with a model to do this by developing just one part of a Basic Agreement - and since you mentioned it first, let's make it about money.
Begin by writing a brief narrative of the problem using "we." Example: "We spend too much, we go out to eat too often, and we take overly expensive vacations." Using "we" in the narrative avoids personal blame.
Next, write what you want your partner to do about spending money. Be specific. You might include a strategy you see as helping, such as: neither person can spend more than $50 without first consulting the other.
Then switch to the personal pronoun "I." Write out the behaviors that you will personally change. "I will not spend more than --$ per month on clothes." "I will consult with you before I make appointments involving luxury services." And so on.
Finally comes the difficult part: you both need to sit at the dining room table and discuss your ideas. An absolutely essential part of that is committing to a calm tone of voice during the discussions. If you cannot keep the specific agreement to speak calmly... well then, neither of you is likely to possess sufficient emotional maturity to change your overall argumentative atmosphere.
But let's assume that you can talk calmly, even if just briefly. Choose a time when you're both well rested. When it comes, sit with your partner for a first reading of each other's material. Make it a maximum of 20 minutes' discussion. In the beginning that's enough.
A couple days later, sit down again for another 20 minutes and discuss it further. You'll probably have to do this several times, extending the process over several weeks, to work through all the money-related issues and reach satisfactory conclusions.
As you do reach them, make sure to take the time to write down the rules you both agree to follow. And post them somewhere easily visible - but only to the two of you.
Finally, be sure to congratulate each other for any small amount of success. When you have some success handling money, move on to other issues.
I can tell you from clinical experience that if you give this system some sincere energy, it can change your life.