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How to Get Along When You Disagree

A new mindset can seed a peaceful climate at home

Key points

  • Our well-being and state of mind is more affected by the climate of the relationship than by whether we get our way.
  • Successful winning teams know that teammates are interdependent and capitalize on members' different strengths.
  • We co-regulate one another, instantaneously sensing and responding to the other's emotional state imperceptibly on a neurobiological level.
Elliot Raderman/Medium
Source: Elliot Raderman/Medium

How to get along as as a couple can be even more complicated and challenging when there is a lot of togetherness.

It’s easy to get into control struggles to defend our right to freedom when we feel constrained and confined. When risk is in the equation, what may feel like a basic personal choice becomes our spouse’s concern and a potential area of conflict, for example, with decisions that affect health but, importantly, also those that affect a spouse's sense of security.

When it comes to decisions that directly risk our partner’s physical health one spouse’s greater risk tolerance forces the other to assume that same level of risk, not only when it comes to getting sick but, for example, with affairs or sexual acting out that involves the risk of transmitting a sexually transmitted disease to a spouse. In these cases, “personal choices” are actually mutual decisions made without consensus or respect for the inherent responsibility that limits the right to personal freedom with certain decisions.

Balancing interconnectedness with autonomy

Our interconnectedness as human beings during the pandemic is more conspicuous and at a heightened level. But it’s always been true. Differences in risk-taking between spouses frequently come into play more indirectly, such as when we are impacted by the fallout of what happens to our spouse from a decision they made. Or if our partner’s judgment affects our ability to trust that we can rely on them or feel secure. Though psychological security is intangible, trust and security are the foundation of relationships and, if torn, affect everything else.

Control struggles when we feel restricted or harbor resentment

We know experientially that our own well-being and state of mind are more affected by the climate of the relationship than by whether we get to do something we want in the moment that divides us. But, when we feel restricted, trapped, or harbor resentments, we are vulnerable to engaging in struggles around autonomy and control.

The good news is that navigating control struggles with our spouse lends itself to the approach competitive teams use for making strategic decisions. This approach is a tool that will help us now, and also provide a template to improve how we navigate conflict in the future. With this model, couples envision themselves on a team together competing with other couples in an event or challenge, and wanting to win.

Applying a model from winning teams to couples

Successful, winning teams know that team members are interdependent, and have different skills. They recognize and capitalize on each other’s strengths, factor in one another’s weaknesses, and take care of one other—creating better plays by working together towards a common goal.

This framework shifts our mindset to regain perspective—bringing into focus what really matters. Keeping our eye on the ball in this way not only pays off, but feels better than fueling resentment fanned by an equivalency notion of fairness (tit for tat) and sense of entitlement.

Step back and fast forward to predict how something will play out

When we access our wise mind and get on the same side as our partner, the climate we live and breathe at home supports our equilibrium.

  • Imagine fast-forwarding in time to predict how an action will play out.
  • How good will it feel afterwards to do something you want to do if it makes your spouse feel unsafe, or puts them at risk?
  • Will it be worth it?

We can de-escalate difficult conversations by making it explicit that we recognize the good in our spouse and their positive intentions towards us—instead of assuming the worst. This makes people feel understood and pulls for their better self.

“I know you care about me and don’t want me to feel anxious and unsafe. That affects how we both feel. (Elicits perspective and defuses the control struggle.)

What neuroscience tells us about co-regulating one another: the good and the bad

Neuroscience reminds us that we co-regulate one another. Our own state is affected by our partner’s. We sense and react imperceptibly on a neurobiological level to even unexpressed rejection.

When we harbor anger, or don’t trust one another, it hurts both people—rendering it hard to make smart decisions that support the relationship and our own well-being. It’s important to work towards being united if we are in a partnership because how we get along affects our mental and physical health and powerfully impacts the way we feel day to day.

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