Monday, June 14, 2010
When There is Conflict in Marriage
Marriage counseling is so difficult because everything is read through the lens of “He is so controlling,” or “She won’t respect me.”
Why does this happen? On the surface, an intractable conflict might seem to be about land (e.g., Palestinians vs. Israelis) or about ideological solidarity (republicans vs. democrats) or about bald desire for power. The marriage conflict may appear to be about respect, money, or power. But, conflict can become intractable because the larger system is supported by the conflict and would more or less collapse if peace were to overtake it. Attractors, they say help maintain a coherent view of the world, a way of promoting unequivocal action without hesitation. Truth be told. We like living in a black/white world where our actions are always clear to us and the bad guys are always bad.
A word about power. In conflict, we use power to get what we want (via direct use or manipulation). But there are always power differences between parties. Someone always has more power. In couples, one spouse will always want more sex than the other. This isn’t a bad thing. It only becomes bad when either party refuses to accept the differences or show any capacity to be influenced by the other.
When peaceful resolutions take place, it is because a new system has been developed; a new set of values and definers of reality.
How do you implement such a change? You cannot go directly after the thing that maintains the conflict. In other words, don’t say, “You, wife, stop believing your husband doesn’t love you”; or “You, husband, start loving your wife by…” Built into the maintainers of conflict is a strain of resistance. “I know you just did something nice for me but you really are just trying to get on my good side so you can (fill in the blank), but I’m on to you!”
Attempts to challenge directly the validity or practicality of an attractor for intractable conflict are therefore often doomed to fail and in fact are likely to intensify people’s beliefs and energize their response tendencies.
Again, how do we deal with these longstanding conflicts? How do we stop seeing the problem as a simple equation (you stink and I’m great) to something more complex (we’re both broken and here’s what I can do to make things better)?
1. Force yourself to step back to see the complexity of the situation. This sometimes happens when something blows our mind (we act in a way we THOUGHT we never would). To do this we have to believe that the simple answer is easy but ALWAYS wrong and desire to have a more nuanced view of self and other.
2. Go back to see previous unity. So, a couple might go back to remember their first love. What affinities did they once have? Can they recover them? Some couples can. From here, they may find the power to fix problems that seem just a wee bit smaller because of a more powerful unifying narrative that was forgotten.
3. Focus on who you want to be in the midst of trials and tribulations. What kind of person do I want to be (that God empowers me to be) come what may?
Notice that only #2 has to work towards maintaining the marriage and living in close quarters. One can develop a more complex and realistic view of the problem (#1) or focus on character development (#3) and still choose to end a violent or destructive relationship. Both also require that we value something greater than self-interest. From a Christian point of view, love must be the reason for all three options – a love given to us by God alone.