Potentially Awesome Relationships Die At Dating
Many potentially awesome relationships never make it out of dating. Why? Because of “couple fighting”. Couple fighting has such a negative stigma that most people dating won’t stick around through serious disagreements. The reason I hear most often for this is “We didn’t have compatibility.”
That means most people who are together and married do have compatibility. So why do people with compatibility struggle with big issues like whether to have a baby or not? It’s because dating only filters out the little disagreements.
Couple Conflict Comes After Commitment
It would make sense that two rational people would agree on key life decisions before they commit to one another. But, more often than not, the big life decisions are deferred for a later, after there is commitment. Issues like where to live, where to work, when to have a baby, whose career is sacrificed for the family, and money issues, consume the hearts and minds of committed partners (I have a podcast on this last issue. See the link below).
Dating couples spend most of their time learning about each others tastes in music, food, clothing and sex. These are important things too, but they are usually not relationship deal breakers. No one has ever gone home crying to their mother because Johnny doesn’t want potatoes, we do if Johnny suddenly doesn’t want a baby.
What is more amazing is that it’s after a couple commits to each other, that they realize they have dramatic differences. Difference that they feel strongly about. Differences worth fighting for. It’s only after the relationship is secure that these feelings about the way their life “should be” begin to emerge.
A Common Couple Fight (Round 1)
One partner, Jill begins to express a desire to move back to her rural town in Oklahoma. She wants to be closer to family, to raise their newborn closer to G-ma and G-pa. She and her husband, Jack, have never really talked about the subject and now that junior is crawling, they fight about it often. Jack grew up where they live currently and never ever saw himself moving to the Southwest. He’s angry that this is coming up now. He feels betrayed by Jill. She feels Jack is being insensitive and borderline tyrannical for not understanding her maternal desire.
It’s Not The Timing, Nor The Topic, That’s The Problem
If you’re following the example above closely, you may find yourself feeling more sympathetic toward either Jack or Jill. You may feel Jack is more right, or you may feel Jill is more right. If you’re feeling neither, you may be thinking “this couple should have had this conversation before they gave birth to Junior, not after”.
But this conflict is due to life circumstances. No one is at fault, no one is right and no one is wrong. This particular conflict is not about the timing either, even if they had the conversation before Junior’s birth, either Jack or Jill’s feelings could have changed after the baby smiled up at his loving parents. Awe.
The Problem Of Jack and Jill (it’s not the hill)
The problem for the couple above is what they are not saying. Neither is discussing what is at the heart of their conflict. The heart of a conflict is never about the solution. For example, It’s never about whether you purchase a minivan or a SUV, whether you buy a house in the country or in the city. The heart of every conflict is about what you need, value and desire. And the problem for Jack and Jill, in the example above, and for most people having couple fights, is that Jack and Jill aren’t always clued in about what they need, what they want and what values support their decisions. We are no different. Like Jack and Jill we fight passionately and emotionally for needs, desires and ideals that we don’t clearly understand.
Once You Get Over One Wall, You Hit Another
Even when you and I, or Jack and Jill, understand some parts of what we want, need and value, we still hit another wall. This is a wall of ignorance. The barrier, this time, is one of language. Even if we have a vague idea of what we want, need and value, how do we articulate it? Most of us aren’t skilled at the language of the heart. We haven’t been taught how to speak from our hearts. We don’t have a language for it. This is a real hole in the love skills of most people. When you lack the words you lack the understanding and the ability to share what really matters. What we do have is a language for how to argue about the solutions.
When We Try To Explain Our Words Fail Us
Men aren’t the only ones who approach big issues from their necks up. Women are also guilty of this, just not as much as men. Boyfriends, husbands and partners have mastered the art of heady rationalization. This is the ability to remove all emotion from a complex emotional topic. It’s akin to saying “I love you” in a mechanical robot voice. The words may be true but the sentiment is all gone.
A Common Couple Fight (Round 2)
What if Jack and Jill learned the language of their heart and understood what mattered to them? What would their conversation sound like then?
Jack might say something like” Jill I desire for Little Jack (he’s a junior remember) to have access to fine schools, beautiful art and feel the excitement of being part of a massive society of people, who are truly diverse and yet truly one. I want him to have the experience of being in a city and feel the freedom of public transportation. I want him to have access to the museums, culture and art that made me who I am today, The city broadened my view of the world and I want that for my son.”
And Jill might say: “I want Little Jack to know the comfort of being known by name and knowing others. I want him to feel the expansiveness of open fields and spaciousness of soul by being able to wander through the woods for hours, his only fear, being late for super. I want him to feel close to the people who love him, and for those people to be a big part of his life. I feel that this will make him a solid, responsible, and loving person. And isn’t that the entirety of parenting?”
Whoah! Whose side are you on now?
Both Jack and Jill spoke from the heart about what matters most to them. Round 1 of this couple fight, kept them focussed on the results. Neither of them spoke from their hearts about their needs, values and desires in round 1, instead they fought about the one thing that’s never guaranteed… a solution.
Solutions are never guaranteed
Solutions are just assumptions, about how to make your needs, desires and values real. Any solution is at best an educated guess. We never know if a solution will really work until we try it. All we can do is hope our solutions work, but the reality is that nothing is ever guaranteed.
Finally: The Moral of the story
Jack and Jill feel closer to one another after the second couple fight, because they fought about what mattered and not about the solution. In fact, if you’re honest with yourself, you feel closer to Jack and Jill too. You feel closer to them because you have a clear understanding of what they desire, need and value.
It doesn’t matter that they still don’t know whether to move to Oklahoma or not. Things now feel better with this couple. They won’t be going to marriage counseling over this conversation. Even though no solution was reached, they are no worse off than they were in round 1. The first fight ended with no solution also, but they left that conversation feeling frustrated and disconnected. This time they feel closer. How can you tell?
Because you feel closer to them too. And this is the point of couple conflict, to get down to the heart of what matters. Couple conflict is about building bridges of connection, not about burning them.
The Final Final
Solutions come through a separate skill, called the skill of negotiation. Some people like the word collaboration, I like “negotiation”. Of course it's win-win negotiation. But this is a topic for another day.
If you want to know more about how to fight with your partner, listen to my podcast called How To Have The Chronic Money Fight.