Even the happiest of marriages will have sticking points of disagreement leading to conflicts. It is both normal and healthy for partners to have different opinions on everything from larger issues like child rearing and the management of finances, down to small things like who gets the remote or whether leaving the toilet seat up is not a big deal or a deal breaker. The conflicts are not the main issue in a relationship, it is the conflict resolution style that can make or break a marriage. Following is a look at how many couples attempt to solve conflicts, followed by the method recommended by the wise folks at Marriage Builders.
How Most Couples Resolve Conflicts
Most couples use one of three different strategies to resolve conflicts. The first and most common is the Dictator strategy. This strategy assumes that one member of the family (usually the husband) has the wisdom and compassion to make most family decisions correctly. While other members of the family can lobby to have him (or her) take their interests into account, when a decision is made, it is final.
Sometimes that strategy works. However, it usually doesn’t, especially here in America. For one thing, dictators have not been known to be all that wise or compassionate. They tend to make decisions in their own interest and at the expense of their citizens. The same thing happens in marriage. When one spouse is given the right to make all final decisions, the other spouse usually suffers.
You may be a victim of the Dictator strategy. It sounds to me as if your husband has decided that you are to take full responsibility for the care of the baby, especially since you are not employed. It solves the problem from his perspective, but not from yours. That’s the downside of the Dictator strategy.
Those who have had bad experiences with a Dictator, often modify their approach to problem solving by creating a second strategy, the Dueling Dictators strategy. This approach raises both spouses to dictator status, and solutions to problems are decided by who is stronger or more determined. Each spouse proposes a solution to a conflict that is in their own best interest, and the war begins. After the dust settles, one spouse wins the decision, which means that his or her solution is put into effect. You and your husband may be moving toward this strategy at this very moment.
Unfortunately, the Dueling Dictators strategy works well enough to make millions of couples unhappy. While this approach makes problem solving unpleasant for all involved, at least there is a solution. And it seems more fair than the Dictator strategy because the pain alternates between both spouses instead of being borne by only one. With each decision one spouse wins and the other loses. The spouse that suffers varies from decision to decision. Instead of one spouse being consistently victimized, both spouses are alternately victimized.
If you were to make the mistake of adapting the Dueling Dictators strategy, you would try to force your husband to care for your baby, whether he liked it or not. You would pull out all the stops, and face fire with fire. You would threaten him, keep him awake at night, withhold sex, and tell his parents what a terrible father he has turned out to be. From time to time, your tactics would work, and he would care for your son while you take a shower, watch TV or, better yet, go out with your friends.
The failure of the Dictator strategy and the Dueling Dictators strategy often leads to a third approach to marital conflict resolution, the Anarchy strategy. This strategy gives up on the idea that marital conflicts can be resolved, and takes the position “every man for himself.” A husband and wife each do whatever they feel like doing. This strategy has the advantage of preventing either spouse from forcing the other to submit to their wishes. That’s because both spouses refuse to do anything that the other wants them to do.
This strategy, of course, is only one step away from divorce, but almost everyone faced with failure to resolve conflicts tries it. An example of this strategy would be for you to drop your son off at your mother-in-law’s house and tell her that it’s your husband’s turn to take care of him. He, in turn, would ignore his mother’s telephone calls, and go on with his life as if nothing happened. In other words, this strategy doesn’t resolve the conflict, it overlooks it.
There is a variation of this strategy that I call Limited Anarchy, where only one spouse completely abdicates responsibility. In this case, your husband decides not to deal with the issue of child care, leaving you with the complete responsibility to raise your baby. In this scenario, your husband doesn’t tell you what to do, he simply ignores the problem. You, on the other hand, end up caring for the child because you have not yet abandoned your responsibility. As is the case with total Anarchy, Limited Anarchy also leads to divorce. In fact, it is the most common reason that women leave men (see my article “Why Women Leave Men“).
How Couples Should Resolve Conflicts
Thankfully, there is one more strategy left. It’s the Democracy strategy. This strategy is guided by the Policy of Joint Agreement (never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse). When this strategy is used to resolve a conflict, a husband and wife do not make a decision until they are both in enthusiastic agreement.
Unlike true democracy, where only a slight majority can impose it’s will on the minority, the Democracy strategy for marital conflict requires unanimous consent. Neither spouse can impose their will on the other. Of course, that’s because there are only two people involved in every decision, and a slight majority for two turns out to be 100 percent.
The Democracy strategy is very different from the others. In the Dictator strategy, marital conflicts are resolved by the decisions of one spouse (usually the husband), leaving the other to suffer it’s consequences. In the Dueling Dictators strategy, conflicts are resolved by winning spouses imposing their will on losing spouses. The Anarchy strategy has no winners or losers because neither spouse is willing to submit to each other’s wishes, and the conflicts are never resolved. In the Democracy strategy, conflicts are not only resolved, but they are resolved with no victims. The outcome of each decision is in the best interest of both spouses.
Why isn’t the Democracy strategy used in all marriages, or even in most marriages? Self-centeredness is one answer. The most powerful person in a marriage may feel that if he or she can always prevail in a conflict, why not? That puts the Dictator strategy into play. Once it’s tried, the other strategies I’ve mentioned eventually follow.
Another reason that couples don’t use the Democracy strategy is that it requires more time and skill than the others. As a quick description of what’s involved, let me explain the steps you should take when you use the Democracy strategy to resolve your conflicts.
1. Set ground rules to make negotiations pleasant and safe.
Before you start to negotiate, agree with each other that you will both follow these rules: (a) be pleasant and cheerful throughout your discussion of the issue, (b) put safety first–do not threaten to cause pain or suffering when you negotiate, even if your spouse makes threatening remarks or if the negotiations fail, and (c) if you reach an impasse, stop for a while and come back to the issue later.
Under no conditions should you be disrespectful or judgmental of your spouse’s opinions or desires. Your negotiations should accept and respect your differences. Otherwise, you will fail to make them pleasant and safe.
2. Identify the problem from the perspectives of both you and your spouse.
Be able to state each other’s position on a conflict before you go on to find a solution. In the case of negotiating for help with care for your baby, state what you would like to have done, and what form you would like his help to take. Your husband should then explain his reasons for having not helped in the past. Be sure you don’t argue with him, just get to know how he feels.
3. Brainstorm solutions with abandon.
Spend some time thinking of all sorts of ways to handle the problem, and don’t correct each other when you hear of a plan that you don’t like — you’ll have a chance to do that later. If you give your intelligence a chance to flex its muscle, you will have a long list of solutions.
4. Choose the solution that is appealing to both of you.
From your list of solutions, some will satisfy only one of you but not both. However, scattered within the list will be solutions that both of you would find attractive. Among those solutions that are mutually satisfactory, select the one that you both like the most.
These steps take time and thought, something that the other strategies do not require. The steps themselves will not only give you solutions to your problem, they will also draw you much closer to each other emotionally.
This is the sixth instalment in our series of posts focused on marriage. We started with a look at six benefits of marriage, followed by an analysis of the Honeymoon period and beyond, the art of compromise, two traits that are scientifically proven to ensure a long, happy marriage and the last one was 50 tips on keeping a marriage happy from successfully married couples. We hope you continue to read the upcoming posts on marriage every other Wednesday.