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Managing marital conflict – Solvable and unsolvable problems

In our last week’s column, we stated that fundamentally, not all marital conflicts are solvable. And there were a couple of readers that challenged us to expound the point a little further as some of them were frustrated by this reality. Probably one of the most commonly taught and often misunderstood pieces of marital advice that we hear before getting married is “never go to bed angry”. This is often quoted on many pulpits in weddings and marriage seminars often with incorrect exegesis and hermeneutics. Conflict doesn’t have to be accompanied by anger.

Anger is a strong emotion you feel when you believe that someone has behaved in an unfair, cruel, or unacceptable way. Conflict is a form of friction or discord that arises when your beliefs or actions are incompatible and therefore resisted by your spouse. It’s possible to have conflict without including anger. These two do not mix.

The consequence of the incorrect exegesis of that advice are that many couples understand it to mean whatever conflict they face on a given day, they must not sleep without resolving it. As a result they go into marriage expecting that any problem that comes up within the relationship has to be solved before bedtime. However, they get very frustrated as reality teaches them the practical impossibility of that notion.

The myth of compatibility in relationships overlooks that fact that our individual uniqueness and fallible nature make it impossible for us to be completely compatible. This not only results in the inevitability of conflicts in our marriages, but also that some conflicts won’t be solved overnight – or may in fact never be resolved. But that has nothing to do with anger.

While many of us started out our married lives with the assumption that as we grow old together, our differences will melt away, the reality is very far from the truth. The fact is, many of the issues couples have conflict over may or may not be resolved. Some are solvable over a period of time, while some are so embedded in the personality and nature of the individuals that the other spouse simply has to find a way around the problem.

Solvable Problems

A solvable problem within a relationship is about something situational. The conflict is simply about that topic, and there may not be any deep-seated meaning or need behind each partner’s position. If your spouse’s responsibilities in the household, for example, are not being managed due to the increase in job responsibilities at work, this is a solvable problem. With healthy communication, you can find a mutually agreed solution to this.

Amongst solvable problems, finding creative solutions and learning to work together to adopt new standards, values and strategies that address each of our needs doesn’t always come quickly. Though some solvable issues seem less difficult, even petty at times, they are sometimes better left for the “morning” when we have rested, collected our thoughts and calmed our minds. With time, often comes perspective.

Important to note though is that solvable problems for one couple can be about the exact same topics that could be unsolvable problems for a different couple.

Unsolvable Problems

These are those that reflect parts of our personalities or general temperaments and are considered stable personal traits. For instance, your spouse is passionate and emotionally expressive when dealing with their feelings, whereas you may be quiet and reflective, preferring a less intense emotional debate. These aspects of your personality are likely not going to change and are simply parts of your relationship to which you will have to learn to adjust.

Resolving marital conflict can be a long process that may even last for as long as the relationship itself. Never fall for the trap of believing that you can’t be happy if you can’t resolve some of your disagreements. There are things you’d disagree about, possibly for life. It’s normal. Why can’t you once and for all resolve them? Because in order to do so, one of you would have to completely sacrifice their values, beliefs and the very essence of who they are. It’s okay to simply agree to disagree, and reach ‘emotional closure’ on certain issues. It’s anger that you should not let the sun go down with you in it, not disagreements.

You can run into trouble when you continue to debate an issue while your emotions are high. During these times, it is hard to be your best self. You have trouble showing empathy and a perspective of oneness where you are looking at how to find common ground that lets the relationship win. So, whether petty or great; solvable or not, when you think of not going to bed angry, try to not let that be an expectation for your relationship problems to be solved. Rather, let that be a goal for your own inner peace to be present through your problems.

What is even more significant than solving problems is ensuring that as a couple, you have a shared system of meaning underpinning your marriage. Developing a shared vision for your marriage, as well as the emotional intelligence and skills for managing conflict is far more significant than any resolution of conflict. When your marriage is characterised by a shared meaning, any conflict is inevitably less intense. And you are likely to maintain focus on what’s important, the bigger picture, without avoiding the conflict.

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