Many of us try to resolve relationship conflicts by demanding an overhaul of our partners. Why? Often, we define the problem in terms of the other person: “I have problems because of you and the way you are,” we are inclined to tell them.
Many years of couples’ and individual counseling have convinced me that defining partnership problems in terms of our partner’s character flaws and implying that he / she is inadequate and needs help will exacerbate the conflict.
Typically, I define couples’ problems in terms of the differences between them rather than the defects in either partner. A focus on defectiveness leads to blame and accusations on the one hand and defensiveness on the other. Effective solutions are not likely to result.
I know you are thinking that sometimes there are “defects” in one or both partners. Yes, it is true that we are all products of imperfect upbringings and therefore have limitations. However, trying to resolve our conflicts by manipulating or coercing our partner to be a certain way will only lead to frustration, defensiveness and attacks.
Sometimes, it seems as if our partners’ differences are aimed to hurt or annoy us. Consider, for example, how the need for intimacy and the expression of closeness, significant building blocks of a partnership, can vary between partners and cause tension. Incompatibilities in this area are particularly threatening because closeness is the reason most of us seek out a relationship.
Let’s take a brief look at how the following pre-Valentine’s Day interaction between Marge and Mark left them both feeling misunderstood.
Marge: Valentine’s Day is only 2 days away and I am looking forward to a romantic candlelit dinner where we can reminisce about when we first met.
Mark: Marge, I would much prefer to go to my office party, which I think you will enjoy.
Marge: Why is it that every time I want us to be alone, you find a way to undermine that? I think you are uncomfortable being close to me.
Mark: What’s wrong with me? Marge I feel like you are suffocating me. I can never give you enough.
Marge and Mark have different ideas about how to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Marge sees the holiday as a time to be alone and intimate with Mark. Mark, a more extroverted person by nature, thinks spending Valentine’s Day with a group of friends will be most enjoyable for him and Marge.
The precipitating event, how to celebrate Valentine’s Day, is an innocent enough one. Yet, for both Marge and Mark, the subject is highly sensitive. They view one another’s needs for romance as faulty and have attacked each other in response.
Dealing with delicate areas of conflict can be challenging under the best of circumstances. It is easy to feel burdened by the demands of handling our partners’ feelings, especially if the particular incident taps into our sensitivities. It is at such times that special care should be given to our partner to soothe their vulnerabilities. Feeling cared for may allow them to be more responsive to conflict resolution and willing to reciprocate the special care.