How we deal with conflict is frequently shaped by our role models and expectations for marriage.
If you are having some stress in your marriage (and who isn't?) take some time to sit together, glass of wine in hand, and answer some of these questions:
This questionnaire is fun and the answers will help illuminate some of your points of conflict, hopefully leading the way to compromise:
What was your childhood fantasy about marriage?
- As a child, who was your favorite couple? (This can be from television, movies, books or real life.)
- What was your mother's message to you about marriage?
- Your father's message?
- How did you mother see the role of women?
- Was she satisfied?
- What about your father and his role?
- What did your parents' fights look like? How did they make you feel?
My husband and I were once joking around, and we each took a can of whipped cream from the refrigerator and began spraying each other. Since then, whenever people ask my 10-year-old daughter if her parents fight, she says "They had a fight with whipped cream once!" (I guess we've kept our other 'disagreements' well-hidden.)
It's a great image, and I hope it will always be her answer. But for most of us, that is not how you remember your parents' fights.
They were likely acrimonious and left a deep and lasting impact on how we look at our selves and our marriages today. And all those ghosts are with us in the room when we are confronting our spouses.
So first of all, we need to determine how much our reactions are based on childhood experiences, how much on fantasy and unrealistic expectations, and then try to focus on the present reality.
We need to determine how much our reactions are based on childhood experiences, and how much on unrealistic expectations.
Sam came from a very formal family, using china every night for dinner; his family home's hardwood floors were always clean enough to eat off. No one ever raised his or her voice and all emotion was repressed. For holidays, such as Passover, they went to his grandmother's house.
Becky came from a more casual household. They stayed home for the holidays and all the relatives came to them. Because of the numbers and commotion they used paper plates. The house was a bustle of warmth and activity -- and a complete mess. Everyone had to shout to be heard, and screaming and emotional outbursts were taken for granted.
Without saying so, perhaps without recognizing it, and even though they were attracted to each others' opposite natures and family lifestyles, both Sam and Becky had an underlying emotional expectation that their homes would be run the way their respective parents' homes were. Needless to say, this led to much struggle until they both realized what was at root and were able to laugh -- and work together.
DON'T LET RESENTMENTS BUILD UP
One last piece of advice on conflict resolution: It is important -- no, it is crucial -- not to let resentments build up.
This is the sad downfall of many a marriage. We think we can overlook something (an unintentional hurt, perhaps), and something else, and something else, until we're boiling over with frustration and we lash out at our surprised spouse.
My husband has a principle that you should keep all relationships current. Nowhere is this more true than in a marriage. If we can really let go of some trivial concern, that's terrific. But if we can't and we're playing martyr, we'll only hurt ourselves and our partner.
Sharon's husband, Joe, was always late. Sharon prided herself on her patience and never said a word, although she frequently adjusted the expected time of an event by a good half hour!
Even though she tried every trick in the book, Joe was still never punctual and Sharon's legendary patience was tried to its utmost. Nevertheless, she bit her lip and remained silent -- until the day of her cousin's wedding. Joe was very late, the whole family was waiting, and Sharon exploded, causing a messy public scene.
Although her intentions were noble, since Sharon's abilities to tolerate Joe's weakness could not keep pace with her principles, she would have been better to directly confront the issue than to allow it to fester.
I know of many marriages brought to the brink of divorce by unexpressed, seething resentments.
We want peace. We want love. We want quiet and contentment in our homes. We won't achieve our goals unless we consciously work at them.
On automatic pilot, we revert to our most basic animal state and behave in ways that damage our relationship.
On automatic pilot, we revert to our most basic animal state and behave in ways that embarrass us and damage our relationship. But with conscious effort and commitment, with self-awareness and a few strategies, we can create not a conflict-free home but a home in which conflicts are resolved in a pleasant and even uplifting manner.
So great is peace, that when a person brings about harmony is his own home, he is credited with having made peace in every Jewish household. [Avos de'Rabi Nasan]