Often, when clients enter my office, they will report, “We argued a lot this week;” or “We didn’t argue much this week;” as though that reflects a measure of their progress or the status of their relationship. They’re often confused when I tell them that I don’t much care whether they argued or not. Everyone argues. The real question is, “How did you argue?”
“The business of art lies just in this, — to make that understood and felt which, in the form of an argument, might be incomprehensible and inaccessible.”
Even in our enlightened age, many partners maintain the romantic notion that they should feel the same way on every question, that they should feel the same way about every object, person, event, sensation, plan, memory… The ideal, if we follow this reasoning, is to eliminate argument by achieving congruence on every perception and desire. To the extent that we want different things, different kitchen colors, a different restaurant, different educational strategies for the children, different sexual activities, different vacation spots, different organizational strategies, different levels of order and cleanliness, etc., it follows that we will have more arguments and our relationship will be proportionately deficient.
Partners who seem to have it together, those who are more satisfied and less resentful, don’t really think about arguing as… arguing. They don’t think about arguing and they don’t think about not arguing. Arguing is just not a very useful concept when it comes to thinking about the resolution of differences. Marital Artists assume that differences are inevitable. Arguments imply an adversarial approach with consequent winners and losers and Marital Artists condition themselves not to think that way. They work to develop a learned reflex which orients them to conflict resolution based in a process that, regardless of the future outcome, is loving, respectful, and seeks to count everyone all the time. They understand that in the resolution of marital conflict, if one partner wins then both partners will probably lose. Adversarial conflict resolution is often rooted in manipulative behaviors; yelling, demanding, threatening, withdrawing, pouting, ganging up (with the help of friends or family), triangulating, or in some other way denying the rightful feelings and autonomy of the person whom they promised to love, honor and respect.
It should be neither surprising nor controversial to observe that we humans always want what we want. But one of the defining qualities of Marital Artists is that their “wants” include a desire to help their partner have a great life; they “want” more than most other particular outcomes to fulfill their commitment to behave lovingly and respectfully; they “want” to make sure that both partners count all the time. They do not want their differences to lead to adversarial “arguments” that quickly devolve into manipulative, adversarial contests ending with an alienated or guilty winner and a resentful loser.
In the context of these relationship “wants,” there is usually very little need for argument. Our differences challenge us to think creatively and to find solutions that are acceptable to each partner even if no one gets exactly what he or she wants. Sharing of the personal significance of the issue for each partner can often lead to an obvious solution that addresses the wants and needs of both. If not, than strategies of compromise, turn-taking, consulting with trusted others, or even random decision-making can help us resolve the apparent conflict without jeopardizing closeness and trust. More than any particular outcome Marital Artists value a process that remains loving, respectful and counts both partners all the time.
When Marital Artists find themselves spinning into adversarial argument, when they find that they have slipped into childish, manipulative behaviors and have lost track of their higher purpose; when they fail to maintain love and respect and a creative approach to conflict resolution; they take a time out and try to become loving grownups, friends and partners again before re-engaging in the task. In the end, they understand that very few outcomes are as important as engagement in a process that they both feel good about.