Resolution, Not Conflict

The guide to problem-solving.

Marriage Arguments: Can All Conflicts Be Resolved?

Marriage involves living life in partnership, which inevitably creates conflicts. Can all these conflicts be resolved? Two leading marriage psychologists, Gottman and Heitler, attempt to resolve their opposing views on this issue. Read More

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Sexual Conflicts

Sorry for the flub above!

I've been following this discussion with great interest. I have such respect for both you and the Gottman Institute.

I must say, though, that there is an arena where couples conflicts are often not solvable. Sexual conflicts. Sexual problems like ED are often solvable. Sexual conflicts, where one party wants one thing and the other wants something else, can frequently not be solved.

This often happens when a partner's sexual desires and mores change over the course of the relationship. We are allowed to change jobs and even religions, but changing sexual desires is off limits. For an example, an insolvable conflict would be if, in a formerly monogamous marriage one of the partners decides that the partner wants to forgo monogamy and open up the marriage sexually, while the other partner does not want to do this. That's an unsolvable conflict.

I understand that is an outlier of an example, but many many sexual conflicts, such as desire discrepancies, can only be "solved" with one or both partners being very unhappy. And we all know where that leads.

Good post!

Can sexual conflicts all be resolved?

I have found that most of the couples I have worked with on sexual issues also have found win-win solutions to their sexual issues. The question is whether or not they are willing to work on this issue. Here's three case examples of win-win outcomes:

1. He was seeking homosexual affairs; his wife had been showing no interest in sex.

Solution: We addressed the issues holding back her interest in sex; she was able then to return to the enthusiasm and enjoyment of their sexual time together that she had experienced in the earlier years of their marriage. He stopped going to the gym where homosexual men were plentiful and inviting him to connect. We also addressed the marriage communication issues that were producing fights instead of collaborative dialogue about their differences. The outcome was a vastly improved sexual life between the couple, a more harmonious partnership and cessation of the husband's interest in outside liasons of any type. Both partners were very pleased with this result.

2. He wanted to "swing" with threesomes.

She had tried it once and hated it. He kept insisting on more, threatening to leave the marriage if she didn't comply. She realized that this was just one of many ways in which he was both selfish (narcissistic) and abusive, and the only times she felt happy in the marriage were when he was away. With this awareness, the wife and her husband agreed that divorce was preferable for both of them to trying to sustain a marriage where the lifepaths each of them wanted were so different. This win-win outcome left them both very much relieved. (note: this was a later-age marriage, a second or third marriage for each of them, with no children involved).

3. He, she thought, wanted sex all the time. She never wanted it.

She was reluctant to be affectionate at all because she feared that any show of interest would be interpreted as permission for a sexual encounter. He said that a rate of 2 to 7 nights a week was a range that would work for him. She said that up to two or three times a week would work for her, but she never felt interested and often felt too tired.

The plan they agreed on was that Monday and Thursday evenings they would head for bed instead of watching TV in the early evening, at about 8:00. She would not be tired. And she would have time to get herself in the mood. She then could be affectionate the other days/evenings knowing that there would be no sexual demands. In addition, if she chose to add sexual time on the weekends those initiations would be up to her.

The outcome is that the tension over when and if they would have intimate time together disappeared. She became delightfully affectionate, sitting next to her husband as they read or watched TV, on the non-sexual evenings. Both were fully pleased with this solution.

Here's a case where we were unable to reach a win-win outcome.

The husband felt sexually deprived as they seldom connected sexually and when they did she complied from a dutiful stance. The wife wanted nothing to do with sex. She also tended to feel chronically depressed, highly anxious, and out of control of her life.

The wife was not willing to address her sexual inhibitions in therapy.

The couple left therapy before succeeding in alleviating the wife's depression, anxiety and feelings of lack of control in her life, explaining that one of the their children was having severe medical problems that the couple needed to use their financial and time resources to address. The husband said that he would resign himself to a sexless marriage, saying that he still loved his wife and therefore would accept that she just was not able to participate in sexual functioning.

While the couple stayed married, this outcome felt unsatisfactory to me. At the same time, I have huge respect for this couple's dedication to each other and to their children, for which both made major personal sacrifices. This was a case where, given the pervasiveness of deep and serious medical/psychological problems, the Gottman model of finding a way to "manage" the conflict was the best option that we could create. It was win-win in that the couple's most strongly-valued concern was to keep their family intact and responsive to their children's needs. At the same time, the sexual desires of the husband were sacrificed to this larger goal, so for me this solution felt win-lose or compromise rather than win-win.

Well sure!

Well, sure! If divorce is seen as a suitable option, or if the problem gets subsumed below other values and becomes part of a win-win that doesn't involve actually solving the problem, then all marital problems are definitely solvable.

All that said, you sound like a terrific therapist, Dr. Heitler. Your patients are lucky to have you.

Is divorce a solution?

To Cynthia, first, warmest thanks for your appreciation for my ways of doing therapy.
Second, you raise a very real question, about whether divorce should ever be considered part of a win-win solution. Here's my current thinking on that question.

1. Fixing the marriage is virtually always a preferable goal.

2. When there are children, fixing the marriage is all the more imperative.

3. Marriage should not be a survival test. If life-threatening conditions exist such as verbal or physical abuse, financial squandering or dishonesty, addictions or affairs, the importance of staying in and fixing flips. How to get out becomes the issue.

4. If there are no children (or the kids are long grown up and independent), it's still vital to get help and aim to fix problems. At the same time, if one partner is unwilling to address problems (such as an unremittingly narcissistic partner with no insight or willingness to make changes), mutual decision to exit may be preferable to staying and suffering. That kind of exit teaches adult children an important lesson as well. Just like physical health cannot be taken for granted but rather requires self-care lest illness and death make an early physical end to life, emotional health of a marriage partnership can not be taken for granted, must be nurtured, and if ignored can lead to the death of the marriage.

Perpetual conflicts

I understand where you are coming from, but when I read John Gottman's statement a few years ago that some issues are unresolvable, it was a huge relief to me. Here is what I see as an unresolvable issue: I am vegetarian (and non-dairy) and my husband is not. I am never going to change and neither is he, but I kept trying to resolve this in the early stages of our relationship. I wanted us to be on the same page, at least in some small way, maybe even with him just eating less or from better companies, but that just wasn't going to happen. When I read John Gottman's statement, I realized that we didn't have to fix this issue to be happy. I could continue to fight, making us more unhappy with each fight, or we could list it as perpetual, drop it , and enjoy life. So that is what we do and it's worked for us for years. Neither one of us brings up the difference and neither one of us pushes the other to join our side. And we couldn't be happier.

So for me, the issues you were discussing are not what I would necessarily list in the perpetual category. Yes, there are so many issues that are resolvable, but please acknowledge that there are truly some conflicts that are not. And my husband and I are much happier having a perpetual conflict we ignore, because this one truly has no resolution. It's funny, too, how something that was so important when we were fighting about it enters our thoughts less and less each year since we dropped it.

What counts as "win-win"?

It sounds to me like you and your spouse have in fact found a win-win solution to your eating preferences. When you switched from each trying via fighting to get the other to do it your way, you found that you could evolve an eating pattern that works just fine, respecting the differences and working with each other collaboratively. Bravo!

At the same time I do hear that the Gottman view on unresolvable issues did help to stop the fighting. I applaud you, and his viewpoint, for that outcome.

drh

It's been my experience as a

It's been my experience as a woman that men are much more interested in dominating relationships than they are in resolving conflicts.

It would seem that in order for relationship conflicts to be resolved without one party feeling that what she wants has been stepped on or squashed, that both parties would have to be willing to work toward improving their conflict-resolution skills. I don't think it works when only one party in the relationship is motivated to do that.

I partially agree...

In general I agree that women tend to be naturally collaborating, men to be by nature more interested in domination. Those tendencies probably made sense for our animal ancestors though they are less serviceable now.

As to whether one party can convert relationships from dominance-oriented to collaborative, I'd say often yes, sometimes no. That's my own personal experience anyways, as someone with particular professional skills in this arena. I sometimes can flip the dialogue, and with some dominating men nothing I say makes a difference.... If they hear only themselves, nothing anyone else says has much impact....

drh

Sexual problems without solutions

Please comment on this blog post today here at PT about sexual problems with no ideal solutions. I'd love to read your perspective!

done

thanks for suggesting that I look at and respond to this interesting post.
drh

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Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is the author of many books, including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. She is a graduate of Harvard University and New York University.

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