You Aren’t Going to Change Your Spouse, So Deal With It

Research suggests problems benefit from kindness and acceptance, not force.

Posted Nov 13, 2019

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An intimate relationship, by definition, contains challenges. It is a combining of two different people into one unit, each person’s backgrounds, biases, and values mix together, there will be some interesting combinations—some exciting, and others aggravating. This was the case for Dave and Lily, who met online and were strongly attracted to each other. Dave loved her sense of humor and zeal to help others, and Lily was drawn to Dave’s calm steadiness and work ethic. Eventually, the romance developed into marriage, but over time Dave became weary of Lily’s “shrieking” and her sacrificing of her time and money in reaching out to the less fortunate. “Her M.S.W. does not stand for masters of social work,” Dave said, “but for ‘must save the world.’” Lily grew annoyed at Dave’s “stoicism” and refusal to support her efforts or discuss his feelings.

Each came to realize the strengths they admired in each other also contained the traits they resented and eventually they learned to accept this unique combination. “Both of us have been married before,” Lily said, “but we had to learn to stop comparing current problems to past successes. We have gotten better at accepting each other’s quirks and talking about them.” Dave agreed: “I hate conflict, but if I avoid the awkward conversation, it usually comes back to bite me later.”

If something isn’t right, it may need to be dealt with. But that does not mean it must be tackled with force and anger. Conflict need not be combat. Lily and Dave learned that differences are not the problem, but the way they are handled can be. Here are four suggestions on how to address the inevitable challenges with grace.

1. Embrace Conflict

Harvard professor Richard Hackman studies conflict and suggests people should accept it. “Go toward the conflict” he says, because if you avoid it, conflict comes back later in other, less helpful ways. Some couples fear the tension of different opinions, but although avoidance may feel better in the short term, frustrations that are pushed aside will pile up.

Researchers have also found when couples avoid discussing differences, they are not engaging with the things that really matter. Specifically, when couples avoid talking about money, religion, children, and in-laws, they are less happy over time, and that is particularly true for women.  Be intentional and calm, but have the courage to acknowledge challenges.

2. Accept Differences

When you get annoyed by relationship conflict, it is natural to feel sorry for yourself and wish things were different. This is normal but also immature. Don’t feel ripped off when you have challenges or think you should be exempt from relationship problems. When a spouse complains about reality, he or she is adding a new problem to the existing one: the resentment of something that is not likely to change.

Only 31% of the conversations couples have are about resolvable issues. This means that 69% of the challenges couples bump up against will be ongoing, including personality differences and styles. Dave will always be fussy about how his bathroom is cleaned, and Lily will always prefer going out on Friday nights. This does not mean they can’t find workable compromises; it just suggests that trying to remake each other into different people won’t work. Accepting differences doesn’t imply ignoring unhealthy issues of control or abuse which may need additional help. Rather, it means that two spouses who are trying to work things out in a mature way will need to work with the imperfections that each brings to the relationship.  

3. Have a Voice

If you avoid speaking up about feelings because it is stressful, it sends a message to yourself and your partner that your opinions and feelings are not worth much. Dave bottled up feelings, but this meant he was not contributing to the relationship and often gave up control of the interaction to Lily, resulting in a lopsided and frustrating experience for both. He would get angry, turn inward and blame himself, which led to unhappiness. In this way, his conflict avoidance became a kind of dishonesty, where he would claim that things were “fine,” when they clearly weren’t. A relationship needs two honest voices to be full and enriching and a healthy relationship can handle two opinions. As Bernard Baruch suggested, “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind.”

This doesn’t mean every difference or aggravation needs to be brought up. Sometimes concerns in the moment will fade quickly and become non-issues by the next day. Dave and Lily learned to let go of small issues but brought the important ones to the table if they were persisting and causing negative vibes between them.

4. Respect Both Sides

An argument can burst the bubble of a formerly floating couple and plummet them back to earth. We are all sensitive, and no one likes to be criticized or demeaned. How can couples engage with conflict and still move the relationship forward? The key is to let both partners have a voice, and to remain respectful and kind. This can be done when things are calm and both speak and both listen. Sometimes expressing and hearing differences will be all that is needed, and sometimes it is all that can be done. Other times this will lead to ideas about compromise or new solutions. When both parties are open and kind, they become closer by hearing each other’s desires.

It is also important to be fair and not exaggerate or get defensive. If partners are getting angry, the conversation may escalate and turn damaging. If this happens, each needs to step back, calm down, and restart later when they can be more fair. One study found that when partners revisited a difficult argument but tried to describe it in a neutral or even positive way, they felt better about it later, and the negative emotions about it decreased. Try to give your partner the benefit of the doubt, and avoid distorting or misrepresenting his or her views.

Dave and Lily had a lot of differences, but they learned to compromise and respect each other’s needs. Dave liked to have a clean house to relax in, but Lily was more free-wheeling and loose. “Why make the beds,” she reasoned, “when we are just going to get back in them anyway?” Dave agreed they didn’t need to keep the whole house clean, but he did request that the bedroom stay tidy as his “sanctuary.” “I am whipped after work,” he said, “so I like to come home and lay on the bed, check my NASCAR scores, and recover for a few minutes.” Lily agreed to make the bedroom a priority, and Dave agreed to not be cranky when he came home tired. They heard each other out, showed patience, and grew stronger together, not despite of their differences, but because of them.

Originally posted on the Institute for Family Studies.

References

J. Richard Hackman, Collaborative intelligence: Using teams to solve hard problems, (Berrit-Koeller, 2011).

Terri L. Orbuch,  Five Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great, (River Grove Books, 2015).

John M. Gottman, The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples, (New York: WW Norton & Company, 2011).

E.J. Finkel, et al., "A Brief Intervention to Promote Conflict Reappraisal Preserves Marital Quality Over Time," Psychological Science, 24, no. 8 (2013):1595-1601.