In marriage, you win together or you lose together.
Unless you’re a reality television star being paid by how many drinks you throw into people’s faces at house parties, you probably shy away from conflict. No one truly enjoys drama, particularly with friends and family. Sure, there are emotionally manipulative people out there who thrive on conflict and enjoy using it to gain attention and egotistically dominate others, but in my experience, the vast majority of us truly do want to get along with others.
Married couples, in particular, didn’t exchange wedding vows so they could subsequently engage in a lifetime of argument and domestic warfare. When married couples come to me for counseling, it’s always because they’re caught in conflict and both parties are searching for a way out. They want the relationship to succeed. They don’t enjoy fighting all the time.
Often, what I find is that, as in any conflict, they arrive with two valid points of view. It isn’t that mistakes haven’t been made and no apologies need to be exchanged. It isn’t even to say that one person isn’t more in the wrong than the other, but what I mean is that each person is able to make a reasonable accounting of their words and behavior. Both parties have acted and spoken in ways that, from their point of view, are justifiable. This might even be acknowledged by both of them, that the other person is making a good point, and yet the argument drags on even as both spouses attempt to defuse it.
Why is it that conflict-averse, peaceful people get wrapped up in never-ending arguments from which there seems to be no escape?
It’s all in how we cast blame.
For instance, I have the bad habit that if I find myself in a conflict, I immediately assume it’s because the other person is unreasonable. I know that I didn’t start the fight. After all, I don’t go around looking for arguments. So it seems as though the other person is hell-bent on creating conflict with me. I want nothing to do with it and back away, but the conflict somehow continues. This other person must be to blame. Otherwise, how in the world did this whole mess get started and why is it continuing? In the meantime, the other person is blaming me.
In a marriage, spouses find themselves trapped by this logic and end up blaming each other for the conflict. After all, each one knows they didn’t start it. As Oscar Wilde once quipped, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you place the blame.” Spoiler alert – once spouses blame each other, they both lose.
Feeling blamed makes us feel isolated and defensive. We feel attacked and misunderstood, creating conditions in which a solution to a conflict cannot be found. Blame makes it personal, and it creates inaction. When someone casts blame, it’s as if they’re saying, “I can’t change until you do.” There’s no movement. No progress.
So, when a couple is fighting, who should they blame?
I suppose if we need to blame something, we can blame the problem itself, agree that it’s an anomaly to be eliminated, a puzzle to be solved. What went wrong? Was it miscommunication? A mistaken assumption? An attempt to communicate in the wrong way at the wrong time? This approach turns the focus away from a negative, personal attack and into a positive, unified approach.
In a marriage, you’re a team. You win together or you lose together. The goal is to fix the problem together. When it comes to a conflict, you’re exploring differences, not defects. If anything, a couple that navigates differences in this collaborate manner will emerge from the process stronger, with new knowledge of how you relate to each other and a renewed commitment.
Any couple can benefit from this advice. Assume the best of each other. Don’t build a case against each other. Blame the situation instead of each other. Don’t make it personal.
In a loving, committed relationship, conflict is never because of malice. Always remember that. It’s far more likely that conflict arises from a communication issue or a mistaken assumption that, with a little patience and understanding – sometimes a lot of patience and understanding – can be resolved.
When I’m in the middle of an argument, my emotions get involved and I desperately want to make it personal, I want to blame and I want to win. I daydream about the script that will play out and the apology I will receive after I’m vindicated. It never happens. What does happen, though, is I eventually realize the conflict can be solved by practicing a skill that all married couples can benefit from, which is tackling the problem itself and solving it together.