End the Gridlock

Step 4: End the Gridlock

Now it’s time to begin the ongoing task of making peace with this issue, accepting the differences between you, and establishing some kind of initial compromise that will help you continue to discuss the problem amicably. Understand that your purpose is not to solve the conflict–it will probably never go away completely instead, the goal is to “declaw” the issue, to try to remove the hurt so the problem stops being a source of great pain.

The way you start this process is by using the circle exercise and define the minimal core areas that you cannot yield on. To do this you need to look deep into your heart and try to separate the issue into two categories. In one put those aspects of the issue that you absolutely cannot give on without violating your basic needs or core values. In the second category put all aspects of the issue where you can be flexible, because they are not so “hot” for you. Try to make the second category as large as possible, and the first category as small as possible.

Share your two lists with your spouse. Working together, and using the skills you learned in Chapter 8, come up with a temporary compromise. Try it for about two months and then review where you stand. Don’t expect this to solve the problem, only to help you both live with it more peacefully For example, Sally believes in living for the moment–she tends to be spontaneous and loose with her money. Gus’s main goal in life is to feel secure. He moves slowly and carefully toward decisions and is very frugal. These differences lead them to clash when Sally insists that they buy a mountain cabin. Gus immediately says no-they can’t afford it. Sally feels confident that they can.

For a year they gridlock over this issue. Whenever they try to discuss it, they become embroiled in a shouting match. Gus lets Sally know he considers her an irresponsible dreamer who always wants to squander the money he works so hard to earn. Sally accuses Gus of wanting to squash all the fun and joy out of her life.

To overcome the gridlock, Gus and Sally first have to explore the symbolic meaning of their positions on the cabin. In their first conversation to try to work on this issue, Sally says that her dreams are to pursue pleasure, to be able to truly relax, and to feel unity with nature, all of which she can realize by having a cabin. Although she also fears that Gus wants to turn her into a drone who’s living just for tomorrow, she doesn’t say this to him now. (She’s said it frequently in the past.) Instead, she focuses on what she desires, not her anger and fears connected to Gus.

When it’s Gus’s turn to talk, he tells her that saving money has a lot of symbolic meaning for him. He longs to feel financially secure because he fears being destitute in his old age. He remembers seeing his grandparents suffering because they were so poor. His grandfather ended up in a state-run nursing home that Gus believes took away his dignity One of his big goals in life is not to feel humiliated when he is old. Gus is also furious at Sally because he believes she is reckless and has a childish need for immediate gratification, which is a threat to his well-being and the life he’s trying to build for both of them. However, he doesn’t hurl those accusations at her this time. Instead, he sticks to explaining and describing his dream of financial security and its roots in his childhood.

Once Sally and Gus have discussed the symbolic meaning of their positions, a transformation takes place. Rather than seeing each other’s dreams as threats, they see them for what they are: deep desires held by someone they love. Although their dreams are still in opposition, they are now motivated to find some common ground, to find a way to respect and perhaps even accommodate both of them.

Here’s how they do this:

They define the minimal core areas that they cannot yield on. Sally says she must have a cabin. Gus says he must save $30,000 in order to feel financially secure.

They define their areas of flexibility. Sally says she can settle for a small cabin on just a couple of acres, rather than the larger retreat she had envisioned. She can also be flexible on the timing of acquiring a cabin. She would like to buy one right now, but can wait a few years as long as she feels Gus supports the decision and they work toward it together. Gus says he can be flexible about how quickly he must save his $30,000 as long as he knows that they are consistently working toward that goal by saving a specific amount from each of their paychecks.

They devise a temporary compromise that honors both of their dreams. They will buy a small cabin, but not for another three years. Meanwhile, they will devote half of their savings to a down payment and half to a mutual fund. In a couple of months they will review this plan and decide if it’s working.

Sally and Gus realize that their underlying perpetual problem will never go away. Sally is always going to be the visionary, having ideas for things like cabins and great trips, and Gus is going to worry about their financial security, their retirement fund, and so on. But by learning how to cope with their differences, they can avoid gridlock on any specific conflicts their fundamental differences trigger. Here are a few other examples, using some of the couples from the “Detecting Dreams” exercise above, that show how you can learn to live with your differences through this process. While none of these conflicts are likely to mirror yours exactly, they should give you an idea of how couples with entrenched differences of opinion can overcome gridlock.

Couple 1
Gridlocked problem: Housecleaning–she wants him to be neater, he wants her to leave him alone about it.
The dreams within the conflict:
Hers: A sense of order and security athome
His: A sense of freedom in his own home
Nonnegotiable areas:
Hers: She can’t abide dirty dishes left out in the kitchen or a dirty bathroom.
His: He can’t abide having to clean up his papers right after he’s finished with them.
Areas of flexibility: She can live with some clutter as long as there isn’t any dirt. He can cope with cleaning dishes and bathrooms as long as he doesn’t have to straighten up all the time.
Temporary compromise: They will both take responsibility for keeping bathrooms and kitchens clean. She will not bug him about clutter more than once a week. But if he doesn’t deal with it by then, she will pile it up and put it all on the floor of his home office.
Ongoing conflict: She will always hate clutter, he will always hate orderliness.

Couple 2

Gridlocked problem: Very different comfort levels with expressing emotions

The dreams within the conflict:

Hers: Being emotional is part of her self-identity and part of what gives meaning to her life.

His: He sees being emotional as a weakness.

Nonnegotiable areas:

Hers: She cannot stop reacting with great passion to life.

His: He cannot become a highly emotional person just to please her.

Areas of flexibility: They both accept that their spouse cannot change a basic personality trait.

Temporary compromise: They will be respectful of each other’s difference in this area. He will be receptive to her need to talk about and share feelings. She will accept when he cannot do this.

Ongoing conflict: They will continue to have very different approaches to expressing emotion.

Couple 3

Gridlocked problem: He enjoys spending time with other people at parties, while she wants him to stay with her.

The dreams within the conflict:

His: To feel free and be able to explore by meeting new people at social events

Hers: To be the center of his attention

Nonnegotiable areas:

His: He must have the freedom to enjoy himself and meet new people.

Hers: She cannot abide her husband dancing with other women or touching them, even in a friendly way.

Areas of flexibility:

His: He doesn’t have to be completely separate from his wife at parties.

Hers: She can tolerate her husband talking with other women for a few minutes.

Temporary compromise: They will stay together at parties for about half the time. The other half he can go off and mingle by himself. But he will not dance with or touch other women–and if she tells him she’s upset by his behavior, he’ll stop.

Ongoing conflict: He will always want to socialize, she will always wish he would pay attention to just her.

Now see if you can outline your own problem in the same way. First write a clear statement of what the problem is and which dreams of each of yours is fueling it. Then note which areas are nonnegotiable for each of you and which you are able to be flexible about. Finally, write out a temporary compromise that you agree to try for a brief period of time. It will be helpful if you also write a brief description of your ongoing conflict to confirm that you both understand it remains unresolved but can be lived with.