When We Disagree about Our Disagreements
I received a great question from a reader not much enjoying her third year of marriage because of a disagreement about how to handle disagreements.
The example she gave is requesting not to be interrupted even when she's speaking slowly. She wants time to get her complete thought out.
I suspect the same problem could emerge over other issues you and I have run into, such as a request to leave more braking distance between cars when driving at high speeds. A request not to set sneakers on the kitchen counter or leave rakes tines up in the grass might be similar. So might asking for less pork and more chicken in their dinner menus.
Her problem is not with making such requests but with the way he prefers to handle such requests.
She would like to make the request, politely and without any accusation that there is something wrong with his way, then patiently wait while he changes his behavior to provide what she needs.
If you're thinking he doesn't want to change for her, this doesn't seem to be the case. What he wants to do is root cause analysis, a little bit of at-home therapy. He wants to help her see where her needs come from and give her the chance to change the need instead of his behavior.
Is this just a creative form of passive resistance? Probably not, because he says a degree of intimacy would be missing from their marriage if they were not free to discuss such things. He wants to be quietly heard out on his views. And he's clear it's the discussion he values, not necessarily any particular outcome.
So she tries to hear him out. She can now listen for up to twenty minutes before she's too angry to continue.
His analyses often sound to her like insults to her mother or other family members. They stem from descriptions of her behavior or thoughts that she does not acknowledge as valid. They feel to her like he wants to change who she is, while she asks only that he change what he does. She would like to do without any of this therapy-like discussion. It decreases intimacy for her.
I am asking you to help. Let's imagine she's ready to jump the net and tell her husband, "I want you to have what you're looking for, but I cannot give it to you this way. Let's find another." Let's give them some ideas to try out, some questions to ask each other, so they can find a Third Alternative.
Their Third Alternative Specs
As I understand it, what she wants is to be able to ask him to change a few behaviors to make her more comfortable. While she's willing to hear no when her needs conflict with his, most of the time, she expects a gradual change in these distressing behaviors. What she wants to avoid is feeling that she, her mother, or other family members are dysfunctional because she wants these changes.
What he wants is to be able to contribute to her emotional growth by using his analytical skills and insight into people. He most likely wants to discuss the causes of his own preferences and annoyances, too. What he wants to avoid is any off-limits topics in their marriage. I will go out on a limb and say he also wants to avoid changing his behavior in a way that enables her to stay stuck in an old problem.
To the gal who so generously offered up the question, I thank you, and I know my readers will have some great answers for you. Some are marriage therapists or fellow marriage educators. Others just have years of trial-and-error learning in their own marriages. And a few are just brilliant, creative thinkers when it's someone else's problem and not their own.
So, good reader, please post your ideas in the comments section online.
Obviously, their first two options (I ask nicely / you change and let me tell you why you want me to change) don't work for this couple. Neither is the right method for them. What other approaches to getting both sets of wants met and both sets of avoids avoided might they consider as their Third Alternative? And what questions might help them find their way?