We all want our relationships to be conflict free – right? We all have a dream somewhere hidden deep in our hearts that we’ll arrive at that perfect place in our marriage where we are completely understood by our spouse and that all arguments magically disappear. But it hasn’t happened yet and (I’m sorry to say) it is never going to happen.
According to Dr. John Gottman, who has done more than 40 years of research on more than 3,000 couples, 69% of all conflict in marriages are perpetual; that is to say they are never going away. So what do we do? Are we doomed to a continual state of aggravation?
Here’s another fact that Dr. Gottman discovered through his research. Master marriages are not conflict free - they learn to resolve conflict in a way that strengthens the relationship rather than tears it apart.
So how can we resolve conflict well? Here it is in one word; compromise.
First let me tell you what compromise is not:
- It is not sacrificing your core beliefs
- It is not over-riding your spouse’s core beliefs
- It is not giving up and retreating in discouragement
- It is not taking turns winning
Compromise is the ability to let go of those things that are non-essential while holding on to your core dreams and beliefs.
Think of it this way; most conflict has a foundation in an underlying dream or desire that is being threatened. We have a vision for our lives that is not in alignment with our spouse. We call these beliefs “non-negotiable” because to compromise them would be to change how we fundamentally believe we should live. But surrounding these core beliefs is a wide area of more flexible desires that are open to compromise. Here’s an example:
Joe and Sally are arguing over where they are going to take their summer vacation. They have had this same argument for the past twenty years and inevitably somebody wins and somebody loses and it is the source of much tension in their marriage. Sally wants to spend quality time with her family (who Joe dislikes, but that's another issue) and Joe wants to go someplace fun like Orlando or Las Vegas so he can relax. They have tried the “you got your way last year so now it’s my turn” strategy but that ends up with someone having a miserable time and making the whole family miserable. The art of compromise can make this perpetual problem manageable.
They take out a piece of paper and draw two concentric circles. In the middle circle they write the non-negotiables (i.e. their core beliefs) in the outer circle they write what is negotiable. For Joe his inner circle has fun, relaxation, entertainment) For Sally she has connection with Family. What they soon discover is that when they experience their “non-negotiable” is very negotiable. Joe is okay with connecting with family but not during his once-a-year two week vacation. Likewise, Sally is fine with seeing family during other non-vacation times. They were able to work out an arrangement where Sally would see family for long weekends and periodically invite them to join them for a week in Orlando which would accomplish both their core goals.
The secret to compromise is to accurately and simply define the core, non-negotiable desires in as narrow a way as possible so that it opens up a larger area for compromise. When we get our core desires met we are far more eager to be willing to give way to help our partner get what they need.
Next time one of those pesky perpetual problems arise draw the circles and see if there’s more flexibility than you thought. It will help you examine the root of the problem and help get some out-of-the-box thinking going.
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