Overcome Gridlock

You want to have children, he doesn’t. She wants you to attend church with her, you’re an atheist. He’s a homebody, you’re ready for a party every night. If you feel hopelessly gridlocked over a problem that just can’t be solved, it can be cold comfort to know that other couples handle similar conflict with aplomb, treating them the way they would a bad back or allergies. When you’re gridlocked, trying to view your differences as a kind of psychological trick knee that you can learn to cope with may seem impossible. But you can do it. The goal in ending gridlock is not to solve the problem, but rather to move from gridlock to dialogue. The gridlock conflict will probably always be a perpetual issue in your marriage, but one day you will be able to talk about it without hurting each other. You will learn to live with the problem.

To navigate your way out of gridlock, you have to first understand its cause. Whether the issue is momentous, like which of your religions to pass on your children, or ridiculous, like which way to fold dinner napkins, gridlock is sign that you have dreams for your life that aren’t being addressed or respected by each other. By dreams I mean the hopes, aspirations, and wishes that are part of your identity and give purpose and meaning to your life.

Dreams can operate at many different levels. Some are very practical (such as wanting to achieve a certain amount of savings), but others are profound. Often these deeper dreams remain hidden while the more mundane dreams piggyback on top of them and are easier to see. For example, underneath the dream to make lots of money may be a deep need for security.

What Dreams Are Made Of

Often our deepest dreams are rooted in childhood. You may long to re-create some of your warmest memories of family life from your youth–such as having dinner together every night without interruptions from the TV or telephone. Or, you may feel the psychological need to distance yourself from painful childhood memories by not duplicating the same activities. For example, you may resist having family dinners if the evening meal in your childhood home was often the scene of hostility between your parents that left you with indigestion.

Here is a list of some common “deep” dreams expressed by couples I’ve worked with.

  • A sense of freedom
  • The experience of peace
  • Unity with nature
  • Exploring who I am
  • Adventure
  • A spiritual journey
  • Justice
  • Honor
  • Unity with my past
  • Healing
  • Knowing my family
  • Becoming all I can be
  • Having a sense of power
  • Dealing with growing older
  • Exploring a creative side of myself
  • Becoming more powerful
  • Getting over past hurts
  • Becoming more competent
  • Asking God for forgiveness
  • Exploring an old part of myself I have lost
  • Getting over a personal hang-up
  • Having a sense of order
  • Being able to be productive
  • A place and a time to just “be”
  • Being able to truly relax
  • Reflecting on my life
  • Getting my priorities in order
  • Finishing something important
  • Exploring the physical side of myself
  • Being able to compete and win
  • Travel
  • Quietness
  • Atonement
  • Building something important
  • Ending a chapter of my life–saying good-bye to something

All of these dreams are beautiful. None of them are inherently bad for a marriage. But they can cause problems if they are hidden or not respected by your spouse. When this occurs, you may either have open battles over the issue, or it may go underground and be expressed symbolically. In the latter case, the couple may think they are at loggerheads over whether to go out to dinner every Sunday night, but the bottom-line issue has to do with something much deeper than a restaurant meal. Sunday night holds a special place in both of their hearts, stemming from their childhoods. Her dream is to eat out because her family did that every Sunday, a treat that made her feel special. But for her husband, a restaurant meal was always much less of a treat than having his very busy mother cook for the family–something she only did on Sundays. So the question of a restaurant versus a home meal is really symbolic of what makes each of them feel loved.

When Dreams are Respected

Why do some couples cope so gracefully with these sorts of issues while others get bogged down? The difference is that the happy couple understands that helping each other realize their dreams is one of the goals of marriage. “We want to know what the other person wants in their life,” says Justine, referring to herself and her husband, Michael. But she could just as well be talking for all emotionally intelligent couples. In happy marriages partners incorporate each other’s goals into their concept of what their marriage is about. These goals can be as concrete as wanting to live in a certain kind of house or to get a certain academic degree. But they can also be intangible, such as wanting to feel safe or wanting to view life as a grand adventure.

Shelley wants to go to college. Malcolm’s hefty paycheck allows her to do that. But he wants to quit his high-pressure marketing job because his dream is to be his own boss and build boats. In a happy marriage neither spouse insists or attempts to manipulate the other into giving up their dream. They work it out as a team. They fully take into account each other’s wishes and desires.

Maybe Malcolm decides to keep at the grind till Shelley finishes school. Maybe Shelley studies part time or suspends her studies for an agreed-upon length of time. Maybe practicality demands that one or both of their dreams be put on hold for a while. Whatever they decide to do isn’t really the issue. The point is that their concept of their marriage incorporates supporting both of these dreams. The way they go about making such decisions–with mutual respect for an acknowledgment of each other’s aspirations–is part of what makes their marriage meaningful to them.

A Horse Named Daphne

When either spouse doesn’t fully appreciate the importance of supporting his or her partner’s dreams, gridlock is almost inevitable. That was the root cause of the severe marital problems between Ed and Luanne, a Seattle couple who were interviewed in my Love Lab for Dateline NEC. When Ed and Luanne were in the lab together, you could see that their fondness and affection were still there. But they were experiencing enormous stress over Daphne, Luanne’s nine-year old horse, which she often competed with in horse shows.

Before they were married, Ed was very taken with Daphne. But now that he was confronted with the monthly bills for her care and maintenance, she became a source of tension between him and his wife. He wanted Luanne to sell the horse so that they could save money. The more he and Luanne argued over selling Daphne the more he feared, deep down, that she cared for the horse more than she did for him and their marriage.

The couple talked out this problem in three fifteen-minute sessions, snippets of which were aired on the show. In between those sessions my team and I coached them, using the sorts of techniques you’ll find in this chapter. Luanne was told not to give up on her dream and to make sure that Ed understood that he came first in her heart. I helped Ed understand that helping Luanne realize her dream to compete in horse shows with Daphne was part of his role as her spouse. He also needed to accept Luanne’s influence when it came to making financial decisions. By the end of the three sessions Ed and Luanne had made a major leap forward in their marriage. When Ed told her he would support her decision to keep Daphne, her wide smile lit up the screen.

Today, two and a half years later, Ed and Luanne are happily married. Luanne has sold Daphne (though she still visits her) in order to lease a younger horse. She continues to compete in horse shows and Ed continues to support her right to do so.

When Dreams Are Hidden

For Ed and Luanne it was apparent that a dream was the root cause of their conflict. The challenge was to respect the dream and each other’s needs. But for many couples the dream that is at the core of the conflict is not so obvious. Only by uncovering this dream can the couple get out of gridlock.

Take the case of Katherine and Jeff. They were happily married until Katherine became pregnant. Suddenly, it seemed to Jeff, her Catholic faith took on a much more central role in her life. He himself was an agnostic. When he found out that she had been talking with her father about having the baby baptized, he was livid. He did not want his child to have any kind of formal religious instruction.

By the time Katherine and Jeff discussed this conflict in my lab, they had clearly become gridlocked. I could tell that their marriage was in serious danger because they were emotionally distant from each other. Even while discussing the highly personal issues of faith and family, they didn’t raise their voices, cry, smile, or touch each other. They were able to talk intellectually about their difference of opinion, but they were emotionally disengaged. And since their problem was really an emotional one–concerning their feelings about families, parenthood, and religion–no amount of careful intellectual analysis would be able to resolve it.

At their next session, I suggested that instead of trying to solve the issue, they should just listen to each other talk about what religion symbolized to them. This was the only way to get to the hidden dreams that were fueling the conflict. Katherine went first. She described how her beliefs had carried her through very hard times. Her parents went through a rancorous divorce. For ten years her father had no contact with the family. Her mother became so depressed that Katherine couldn’t depend on her. She felt completely unloved and alone until she turned to the Church, which embraced her. Not only did she feel a kinship with her fellow worshipers but she felt comforted by prayer. When all the chips were down, feeling God’s love brought her deep comfort. Katherine started crying as she remembered those hard times and the solace she found in religion. Jeff explained that he had been an agnostic his entire life. In contrast to Katherine’s dysfunction al family, his was very strong and loving. When he went through hard times, he always turned to his parents. He wanted his child to feel the same trust in him and Katherine. He feared that if their son was “indoctrinated” into the Church, this would interfere with that bond; the child would be trained to turn to God instead of his parents.

Jeff and Katherine had opposing dreams: He envisioned them as a happy family that would supply all the love and support their children needed. He saw religion as a threat to their deep connection. Katherine viewed religion as a vital support system that she wanted to ensure was there for her children.

Once these dreams were discussed openly, the mood in the room changed dramatically. Jeff told Katherine that he loved her. It finally sank in to him that her desire to baptize their baby came out of her deep love for their child–for his child. He realized it made “perfect sense” that out of this love she would want to protect the baby from ever feeling the pain she had experienced. This helped him reconnect with his own deep feelings for Katherine, which had gotten buried under all of the bitterness and anger.

In the first session no emotion had passed between the couple. But this time you could see the compassion on Jeff’s face as he listened to his wife recount her childhood. When she cried, he handed her tissues and encouraged her to keep talking. Katherine listened just as intently to his side of the story.

Now that the real issues were out in the open, they were able to talk about how they could raise their son in a way that honored both their visions. Jeff told her he wouldn’t oppose the baptism. He himself would always be agnostic, but it was okay with him if the child received rudimentary training in Catholicism. However, he still opposed intensive religious study, because he feared the Church might impose ideas on the child. Katherine was able to accept this compromise.

Deep issues like these are unlikely to be declawed in just one session. But Jeff and Katherine made an important first step. They turned toward each other and acknowledged with respect each other’s dreams for their child. They agreed to seek further counseling to build on the success of the lab session. Will this issue ever go away or be resolved in their marriage? Probably not. But they have begun to learn to live with it peacefully.

If you’ve reached gridlock on any issue in your marriage, big or small, the first step is to identify which dream or dreams are fueling the conflict. One good indicator that you’re wrestling with a hidden dream is that you see your spouse as being the sole source of the marital problem. If you find yourself saying, for example, that the problem is simply that he is a slob or she is just irresponsible or overly demanding, that’s a sign of a hidden dream. It may indicate that you don’t see your part in creating the conflict because it has been hidden from view.

Uncovering a hidden dream is a challenge. The dream is unlikely to emerge until you feel that your marriage is a safe place to talk about it. That’s why it’s important to begin by working on my first three principles, outlined in Chapters 3, 4, and 5, in order to strengthen your friendship with your mate.

Keep Working On Your Unresolvable Conflicts.

Couples who are demanding of their marriage are more likely to have deeply satisfying unions than those who lower their expectations.

You may find that when you first begin to recognize and acknowledge your dreams, the problem between you and your spouse seems to get worse rather than better. Be patient. Acknowledging and advocating for your dreams in a marriage is not easy The very nature of gridlock means that your dream and your spouse’s appear to be in opposition, so you’ve both become deeply entrenched in your positions and fear accepting each other’s influence and yielding.

Once you’re ready to overcome gridlock, here’s how to proceed.