Maybe, “The art of conflict in relationships”
I Can’t Believe We Still Like Each Other After 20 Years?!
My wife Eve and I have been together for over 22 years and have been married for 20 of those years. Like many couples who have been together for that long, we have navigated quite a bit. Over the last 22 years together, we have moved 17 times all over the county. Our business in Southern California lost over 80% of its revenue in a month due to an unexpected event. We have and are raising two children, homeschooling them for one of those years. And most recently, we navigated a tremendously traumatic transition in a career that once again eliminated over 80% of our income and almost cost us our home. We recently took a step back and reflected on how we’ve not only been able to overcome all of these events and be together but more importantly, how, after all these years of being together and all the trials and tribulations, do we still like each other as much as we do?! After discussing this for some time, we realized that what has allowed us to have the incredible relationship we have today was our ability to allow ourselves to dive into conflict with each other.
When you actually communicate with people, you will find that you don’t agree with everything they believe. You will discover that you don’t see eye to eye on many things. You are two very different people who operate and see the world differently. Now, I’m going to assume that if you are together, there are enough things that you do have in common, or else you wouldn’t be together. However, even in the most “soul matey” relationships, there will be differences. There will be things you disagree on and things that you don’t have in common. The more time you spend with someone, the more you will see these things.
The biggest problem I find when working with couples is the fantasies they created about each other when they first got together. These fantasies can manifest in a variety of ways. One way is going to the place of “we are soul mates,” “he/she is perfect,” and “we are just so perfect together.” The other way it can manifest is completely disregarding any aspects of the person you don’t like. We pretend they don’t drink too much, are good with money, or communicate what they are feeling. We often do not bring up these heavier topics because we are afraid it might cause conflict, an argument might arise, and you may even get into a fight! It is the avoidance of this necessary conflict that will have you suffer down the road.
These little conversations that we sweep under the rug as “no big deal” are what eats away at us for years and bring us to the place of, “yeah, I think we have just grown apart” or “we just aren’t in love anymore.” All of these things can be avoided by leaning into the discomfort of having a discussion to figure it out.
There are some rules you want to use when engaging in these types of discussions, and although it would be great if both parties agreed to the rules, it will be effective if only one party abides.
Rule number one is ownership. I wrote about ownership in “The First Principle of Vitality” but I will discuss its application in this scenario. When you are about to engage in a discussion of this nature, it is imperative to own your side. A great practice that I use in these situations is to evaluate the last 30-60 days and ask myself what I may have done or not done that contributed to this moment of conflict. I can always find at least a few things, most of the time more than a few things, that directly influenced us getting to this moment. It can be as simple as not following through on something I said I would do, relating to something as “not a big deal” when Eve told me it was, or never articulating what my expectations clearly were in a certain situation. Most of the time, they are subtle, little things that accumulate over time and eventually manifest as something much bigger. If both parties can take some time to own their role in the conflict or disagreement, when you return and share these things, it creates a place of collaboration where you can find resolution and move forward amicably.
Rule number two is don’t take it personally. Just because someone doesn’t agree with you or views something differently than you do, doesn’t mean they are attacking you. It's not only ok not to agree on certain things, but it is also healthy that you don’t agree on everything. Be open to the other person’s perspective. As the author of “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” Stephen Covey put it perfectly, “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.” If there was one thing that I believe has, and still does, make the biggest difference in how I influence my relationship with Eve, is this rule. When I remember this rule of engagement, it always makes things better. Eve and I definitely do not always look at things the same way. My brain does not work like her brain. I like things in a spreadsheet, on a whiteboard. I’m always up to creating a flow chart and figuring it out. Eve’s style works more off of intuition, feeling, and a big-picture perspective. Once I stopped looking at this difference as a problem and started to embrace the difference, I realized how amazing it was. I have grown to absolutely LOVE this about Eve, even though it does drive me crazy at times. And it drives me crazy because it makes ME uncomfortable because my brain can’t do what hers can. When I took her not doing things my way as a personal attack, conversations always escalated.
The third and final rule I will share with you is something Eve and I said to each other when we decided to get married. We agreed to remember that we are on the same team. That we both want the same thing. This agreement has become one of those staple conte
xts that I remind myself of when I am convinced Eve and I are at war with one another and trust me, we’ve had those moments. Remembering that we are on the same team a
nd that we want the same thing allows us to dive into any necessary conflict as a united front. And although we have taken the occasional shrapnel from each other’s misfirings, I can tell you that each and every moment of conflict that we leaned into with each other, no matter how difficult or painful it was, was absolutely worth it and has created the incredible relationship that we know today.
While conflict in a relationship may seem like an oxymoron, when navigated using these tools, these seemingly uncomfortable discussions will make you closer. If you’d like more hands-on assistance, join me in my virtual group or 1-1 sessions where you can put more tools in your box. Let’s go through it to grow through it.