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Unresolved conflict wastes our time and energy, but resolving conflict makes us better off than we were before the conflict. If we never conflicted, we'd never change, achieve, create, or grow.
Partners who agree about everything can make each other miserable. E.g., you're fired from your job. You tell your partner that you'll never amount to anything. Your partner agrees. That isn't what you need to hear!
The myth: All relationship problems stem from conflict.
Reality: If both partners are miserable, they're not in conflict. The partners should work on disagreeing. Conflict will help them grow to a new life stage, in which they're no longer miserable.
In an opposite relationship, if you come home in an extreme emotion, e.g., despair, your partner responds with the opposite emotion, e.g., hope. If you lost your job, your partner says that you'll get a better job.
Or you win big in Las Vegas. You feel happy. Without a partner, or with a conjunct partner, you'll place another bet. You don't need a Ph.D. in statistics to know that if you continue to bet, sooner or later you'll lose. But your opposite partner recognizes your overconfidence, and suggests that you quit while you're ahead. You agree, and take your partner out to a romantic restaurant.
Handled well, opposite partners pull each other from emotional extremes to the emotionally neutral center. There each can shift to another emotion. If an opposite relationship is unhappy, try to compromise.
Romantic movies begin with opposite individuals. She's Donald Trump's personal assistant. He's a foot-long hot dog vendor. Over time they grow to appreciate and love each other. We enjoy romantic movies because we recognize that opposite relationships are ideal for two individuals.
- The myth: Agreement is the basis of happy relationships.
- Reality: Opposites attract-and create balanced, emotionally healthy relationships.
Think of a three-person relationship you've been in. You had adventures together, bouncing ideas off each other that no one individual would have thought of. Together you felt balanced.
Now recall how you felt with one of these partners, when the third partner was missing. You felt connected to your partner, but in an oblique way. You didn't agree, yet you didn't openly conflict. While such a relationship looks peaceful on the outside, it's confusing for the partners. Attempts to bring the relationship closer misfire, as if each partner can't see exactly where the other is. They can't pull each other to the emotionally neutral center.
E.g., Joe loses his job and comes home feeling down. Mary is watching her favorite television show. Joe sits down with her, but can't get his mind off his troubles. He doesn't want to disturb her so doesn't say anything. Mary notices that Joe is fidgety, but figures that if something is bothering him he'll say something. She continues to enjoy her television show. No conflict occurs, but neither partner's emotions change.
Their third roommate, Chris, comes home. Chris isn't interested in Mary's television show, and notices that Joe seems down. Chris mentions this to Mary. Mary switches off the television, and all three sit down to talk. Together they balance and reach the neutral center. If two individuals are in an unhappy triangular relationship, find the missing third partner.
- The myth: The only "real" relationships have two partners.
- Reality: A three-person relationship can be as happy and effective as a two-person relationship.
When two individuals' personalities relate squarely, the partners are at cross-purposes. The partners expend energy fighting each other. The relationship goes nowhere and produces nothing.
Including a third side of the square changes the heat into light. The energy of the two fighting partners produces creative, innovative achievement for the third partner.
Including the fourth side of the square stops the fighting. The partners' energy now goes entirely to creativity and achievement.
E.g., when I was in graduate school, four classmates and I did a six-month consulting project with a manufacturing company. My classmates agreed about everything. I didn't. Our clients agreed with me. Our professors agreed with my classmates. The four sides of the square were my classmates, me, the client (300 managers and employees), and the two professors.
When we five students got together, we'd verbally fight for hours, day after day, getting nowhere. My classmates even once threatened to beat me up.
The clients disliked my classmates, and avoided working with them. A client manager once threatened to beat up one of my classmates.
But when my classmates and I worked with our clients, we achieved tremendous results. Near the end of the project, we met with seven other teams of students working with other companies. The other teams (all of which had 12 students) had little or no conflict. They reported minor, superficial results. When we reported what we were doing, jaws dropped across the audience. Afterwards, students enviously asked how the five of us had accomplished so much.
Looking back, I wish we'd involved the professors more. On the few occasions when the professors were with us, we didn't fight.
Symbolically, the vertical axis represents the connection between heaven and earth, i.e., our inner connection to spirit. The horizontal axis represents our connection to other people. A square relationship can connect us to other people while helping us grow.
- The myth: Compromise solves all problems.
- Reality: Stand your ground, but bring additional partners into the relationship.
- More reality: A couple can relate differently in different areas of their lives. E.g., a couple might share a hobby, have opposite careers, live with a third person, and participate in a square community relationship (e.g., a school's parents, teachers, administrators, and students).
Larger groups also can pull an individual from an emotional extreme to the emotionally neutral center. When relationships push women to emotional extremes, they turn to their friends for support.
Men, in contrast, don't talk to other men about their problems. But this is the value of men's issues groups. When men overcome their reluctance and go to a meeting, much comes out. Because of the emotional intensity men experience in these groups, and the resulting personal and spiritual growth, men's groups are often held in churches (e.g., Promise Keepers). Men's groups can also be located through your university or on your newspaper's community events page. (Don't just use an online men's issues group. Talking to each other face-to-face is important-and you might actually like the group hug at the end of the meeting.)
Or start a relationships books reading group at a bookstore café. Ask the bookstore to put your meetings on their calendar of events. Plan a meeting to discuss personal ads, and ask a newspaper's personal ads section to advertise the meeting free. Invite psychologists or your favorite author-me, of course!-as guest speakers. Announce your group on FriendshipCenter.
A dyad is the personality of a couple. When your friends refer to you and your partner as "Betty-and-Bob," as if the two of you were one person, you've become a dyad.
Adolescents don't handle dyads well. A young man who hasn't proven himself in the world-i.e., hasn't developed a strong individual personality-feels threatened by the compromises necessary to form a dyad with his girlfriend.
Young women, in general, are happy to lose themselves in a dyad. But a man can easily manipulate a young woman who lacks a strong individual personality. The young woman may do things against her self-interest, to benefit her partner. She strengthens her dyad personality to make up for her lack of individual personality. If this weakens her individual personality, she goes into a downward spiral. Her growing dyad personality pushes out her individual personality, until she has no individual will.
A man is more likely to let the relationship suffer to hold on to his sense of self, while a woman is more apt to let her identity suffer to help strengthen it.—David Schnarch, Passionate Marriage (1997)
Young men do this too. E.g., military units eliminate soldiers' individual personalities, substituting the group personality. Recruits are taught that individually they are nothing, but the group they compose is strong.
These gender roles reverse after 40. Older men enjoy losing their individuality in a dyad. Older women enjoy independence.
Staying in Relationships
Two-thirds of unhappily married couples that stay together report happiness five years later. The unhappier the couple, the more likely they are to be happy five years later, if they stay together.
Unhappily married couples who divorce and unhappily married couples who stay together are, five years later, equally happy.
Sometimes an individual blames his or her spouse for his or her unhappiness, when he or she has a deeper, hidden cause of unhappiness. Divorce doesn't solve these individuals' problems.
Divorce sometimes creates problems. Divorce sets in motion events over which the individuals have little control-reactions of children or relatives, or difficulty finding or maintaining a new relationship.
"In two years you will be in a similar room, packing in a similar way, walking out on the next guy, and then two years after that on the next one, and one day you'll look back and say, 'What do I have to show for the last ten years?'"
I kept throwing my clothes and [our daughter's clothes] into the suitcase in one big jumble.
"But," Aaron went on, "you could stay and work this out with me, and in ten years you'll look back and you'll say 'I preserved this family,' and that will be the thing you will be most proud of, no matter what else you do with your life."
I stopped, frozen by the clarity of what he had said about me. There aren't many times in your life you hear a truth so piercing. There was no attack, just a simple assessment of my future.
When the cab came, he sent it away. We talked, we cried, and we agreed to try. It's nineteen years later, and it is the thing I am most proud of.—Lesley Stahl, Reporting Live (2000)
As a child, you didn't accept responsibility for your failures. When you act like a child, you blame your partner for your issues. Then you repeat the problem in the next relationship. You blame all men or all women for having the same problem.
In the adolescent life stage, your relationships fail, but you expect points for trying. This is better, but you're not ready for marriage.
In the adult life stage, you accept your partner's faults and value her strengths. You stay together even when a relationship isn't perfect. You may also stay together because your children's happiness is more important than your own happiness.
Couples stuck between the adolescent and adult life stages criticize and nag each other. They're consciously determined to stay together (adult life stage), but express unhappiness in ways that makes the partner aware of his or her failure (adolescent life stage). Or, worse, a spouse uses childhood finality to express unhappiness (e.g., "You never do anything right.").
Couples who are destined for divorce start out an argument in anger, criticize, show contempt for each other, and act defensively. When one tries to make peace, the other refuses. Quite often one (usually the woman) will [emotionally] overwhelm the other, who withdraws emotionally....Over months and years of arguing like this, couples amass so many bad memories that one or both of them just give up.—Norman Rosenthal, The Emotional Revolution (2002)
Consumer Reports found that marital counseling received the lowest ratings, compared to patients seeking help for other problems. Only about 35% of couples experience long-term benefit form marital counseling.
In general, marital counseling help couples who are experiencing communication problems. But psychologists are notorious for only working on communication problems, and ignoring other issues.
- Schnarch, David. Passionate Marriage.
- "Divorce no ticket to happiness, study says" (quoting University of Chicago study by Linda Waite, published by the Institute for American Values), Reuters Health, 2002-07-12, http://www.reutershealth.com/archive/2002/07/12/eline/links/20020712elin023.html. Kary, Tiffany. "Don't Divorce, Be Happy," Psychology Today, December 2002, p. 26.
- Stahl, Lesley. Reporting Live (Touchstone, 2000, ISBN 068485371X).
- Rosenthal, Norman E. The Emotional Revolution: How The New Science Of Feelings Can Transform Your Life (Citadel, 2002, ISBN 0-8065-2295-X), p. 281.
- Fletcher, Garth. The New Science of Intimate Relationships (Blackwell, 2002, ISBN 0-631-22077-1), p. 140, referring to Gottman, J.M., Coan, J., Carrère, S., Swanson, C. "Predicting marriage happiness and stability from newlywed interactions," Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60, 5-22 (1998).