This post is not about gay marriage…

by: shenpa warrior

December 8, 2010

…it’s about deal breakers in relationships, and why you may be going about them all wrong. Open and honest communication about all disagreements may not be a good idea, if you value the space between you and the other person.

What would get in the way of a relationship? Should some topics be avoided?

Sure, relationships where “everything is on the table and nothing is off limits” are great. I’m not suggesting banning certain topics, only that we practice some discretion… if we value the relationship.

After Prop 8 (and other times) I have noticed people getting de-friended on facebook and dismissed in real life. Intensely personal views and sensitive feelings are dismissed as “liberal political agendas” or of trying “politically correct.” Conservatives are demonized as “hateful.” As if that’s ALL they are (ZING!).

I’m sure I have many friends and family members that don’t see things the same way I do. If we really wanted to we could pick at scabs and start some fires. Some people hold views or beliefs that are hurtful. When does a hurt or even just a disagreement need to be discussed and when is it better left un-picked?

Where does one draw the line? Should there be a line? Is it in the same place with everyone? Some people value holding to principles more than they value relationships. Some feel safe in the boycott, and refuse to go certain places. Some feel hurt enough to toss out (or put up walls between) even good relationships. Some value debate and argumentation at any cost.

Take the value of stubbornly grasping one’s iron rod of choice (it doesn’t matter what it is: science, religion, political views, or the all-powerful “reason”) and add in the unfortunate belief that everything between two people should be shared (sometimes with a crowbar), and you have a recipe for ending a lot of relationships.

Sure, there is something to be said for openness and honesty. However, even in marriage, clear, open, honest communication is often NOT helpful. It almost always makes things worse. Couples in distressed marriages often communicate VERY clearly. They are often (not always) very honest. In couple therapy I give them about 2.1 seconds of this stuff before I interrupt.

The problem is most of their communication is negative, and these couples get into storms that become much bigger than the sum of the parts. The best intentions (resolving hurt, protecting oneself or the relationship, trying to be honest, etc.) often add fuel to the fire. John Gottman found that stable relationships (not just marriages, he says) consist of a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative “stuff” in a relationship. Really happy relationships are about 20:1. In family therapy the parent(s) and adolescent (or a just a couple) bring in all the content of who did what/said what/believes whatever, why it’s his/her/their fault, blah blah blah blah blah. I have learned quickly to tune out the content (the trees), and listen to the process and the patterns, the underlying emotion, and the intent. (the forest). Now, if you’re avoiding all kinds of things, that’s another story, for another day.

I often apply the same idea to relationships with people with different (sometimes wildly different, even “hurtful” or “threatening” or “ignorant”) views. These views may be problematic if that’s all we talk about. Is openness and so-called “honest” communication about areas of disagreement more important than compassion, patience, charity, or just having a good time playing Rock Band together?

Is it okay to value the process of my relationships more than making sure we all agree on everything significant? You don’t have to completely avoid certain topics. Just make sure you have 20x more positive stuff going on… If you DO, then perhaps those difficult conversations will be that much more productive.

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34 Responses to This post is not about gay marriage…

  1. Course Correction on December 8, 2010 at 7:19 AM

    Insisting that others agree with your views is pure ego. Dealing with family members who insist on agreement with their positions on politics or religion almost necessitates putting their topic of passion off limits for discussion.

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  2. Heather on December 8, 2010 at 9:19 AM

    I gotta disagree with you on this one. It’s not clear and honest communication that is harming a relationship — it’s negative and hurtful communication. I wouldn’t want a relationship in which I couldn’t be completely honest with my spouse. About anything. I think the problems that need to be addressed are: 1) learning to communicate effectively and 2) learning to get off our high horses and not take things as personal assaults on our egos.

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  3. Paul on December 8, 2010 at 9:30 AM

    Adam, interesting point. When I served as bishop I was totally unequipped to help troubled couples who came to me for counseling, and this post is an example of what I faced. Their desire to “communicate clearly” really meant their desire to prove (to me, usually) that one was right and the other wrong.

    That’s not communication, clear and open though it may be.

    I would often refers couples to others more qualified in couples therapy, but in my discussion, I’d seek to remind them of when they once had common ground and try to get some conversation on that topic. Some were receptive. Others were too far over the edge and couldn’t let go of their desire to be right.

    In my own family from my own experience I’ve learned that when I’m trying to prove my point, I rarely communicate. I may bludgeon or bluster or even pontificate. But communication? Not so much.

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  4. Mike S on December 8, 2010 at 9:54 AM

    Nice points. I do like the ratios and try to emphasize the positive, especially in my marriage.

    With other people, it is different. I personally value disagreement and discussions about opinions, etc. as I grow from it. I can separate someone’s opinions and ideas from the person.

    Many people have a hard time with this, however. I have friends and family who approach not liking an idea of theirs with not liking them. They say something, and if I don’t agree with their idea, they take it as a personal attack. So I usually just don’t press the point.

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  5. brjones on December 8, 2010 at 10:28 AM

    #2 – This is the point, though, Heather. What if you have negative or hurtful thoughts or feelings about your spouse, or that would otherwise unavoidably hurt or upset your spouse, but that in the big picture aren’t really that important? Are you compelled to share them because “we have no secrets in our relationship”? There are some things that are in no way uplifting and no matter how you spin them are going to be hurtful to your spouse. The question is, do you go ahead and share anyway, simply to satisfy some abstract ideal of making sure you share everything with your spouse?

    (The following is not directed at you, Heather) I’ve always thought the cliche that a couple have no secrets from each other is one of the most obnoxious, platitudinous concepts ever. There is no way I would ever tell my spouse everything I think and feel, and I wouldn’t want her to do it either. And frankly, as an aside, those couples I know who have adopted that mantra are people with whom it is very difficult to have a meaningful relationship.

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  6. diane on December 8, 2010 at 11:07 AM

    When does a hurt need to be discussed?

    Last Sunday, I was in my new ward and I sat in the front pew because I wanted to bear testimony. The woman next to me started a conversation with me and told me she was going to bear testimony as well, I stated that I like to go first because then I don’t get anxious and won’t panic. In hindsight, I should have said nothing. From that point the woman started to twist things around. I told her I no longer felt comfortable discussing the situation with her, You’d think she got the hint. Hell no, instead she starts to shove scripture in my face and proceeds to tell me that I’m letting Satan influence me and by not relying on pure faith alone to help my anxiety issue. The last thing she told me was that I needed to develop a relationship with God. Mind you I don’t know this woman at all.

    I still got up to bear testimony but because of the crap it wasn’t near what I wanted it to be and quite honestly, I’m still pissed. I talked to the bishop the other night and I told him that I wanted to confront her in his office and his response was,”I’m not comfortable being in the middle of that kind of arbitration.” Well. Guess what your the bishop and this woman has no right to be not only abusive, but spout incorrect doctrine.

    I told him I got up and walked away from her this time. but I made no promise to get up and walk away the next time and if it happens to be in the chapel then it happens to be in the chapel. I’m not willing to be anyone’s emotional and spiritual punching bag

    I actually called him again this morning because I’m hoping to speak in Sacrament meeting about this very topic. I’m just sick of this crap. Its’ 2011 and people in the church are still using Satan and mental illness in the same sentence and I’m suppose to act grateful about it because if I don’t then of course I have an issue with pride. What a load of crap.

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  7. AdamF on December 8, 2010 at 11:18 AM

    “It’s 2011 and people in the church are still using Satan and mental illness”

    I agree with you Diane. This is a load of crap. I would be angry as well.

    Heather – I agree – negative communication is the problem, not open and honest POSITIVE communication (more than just positive intent). Happy couples actually censor a LOT more than unhappy couples do, especially during arguments, so I think that supports brjones on this. Unhappy couples feel free to say whatever is on their mind, whenever they want to say it… which doesn’t work out very well…

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  8. diane on December 8, 2010 at 11:23 AM

    I meant to add that when something like what took place happens to someone at church it needs to be discussed, but its’ not why, because the church as a whole does not deal with conflict in a positive manner.

    So, then people like me are left with holding things in which for someone like me, makes me sicker or we are left with the other alternative which is leaving the church and if I leave this time it will be for good

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  9. MoHoHawaii on December 8, 2010 at 11:29 AM

    Two quick points:

    1) The Church underestimated how divisive its activism with Prop 8 would be. The fallout is ongoing. My own family still hasn’t recovered.

    2) Facebook is evil.

    Prop 8 + Facebook? A train wreck.

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  10. brjones on December 8, 2010 at 11:32 AM

    #8 – Diane, I have to think there is a middle ground somewhere between just keeping it to yourself and leaving the church. Short of a face to face in the bishop’s office or you speaking in church on the topic, is there some other relief the bishop or other ward leaders might offer? Perhaps some instruction to ward leaders in ward council or a joint priesthood/rs lesson on being sensitive to other members or something like that? Have you spoken to the RS President?

    I know you’re angry right now, as most of us would be in your situation, but I think it would be tragic for you leave the church in anger and deprive yourself of the beauty you obviously find in it, over the insensitivity of other members and/or leaders. Especially when you might be able to find another way to address the situation.

    As frustrated as you are at this sister, she probably thought she was being helpful (as hard as that might be to believe). Perhaps some simple education and awareness might be the solution.

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  11. Seldom on December 8, 2010 at 11:59 AM

    It is a peculiar Mormon afflication to equate disagreement with persecution.

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  12. AdamF on December 8, 2010 at 12:05 PM

    Paul: “Their desire to “communicate clearly” really meant their desire to prove (to me, usually) that one was right and the other wrong.”

    The irony with this (and I see it all the time) is that this process itself (trying to communicate to a third party that the spouse is wrong) is wrong. :)

    MHH – I totally agree: facebook + [Prop 8, the "constitution", or immigration, etc. etc.] is a disaster.

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  13. AdamF on December 8, 2010 at 12:08 PM

    Re: blaming the spouse/”they’re wrong” and etc: In therapy, if someone blames the other, I move it back to them (i.e. what their struggle or challenge is), and if they blame themselves I move it back to what happens “between” them. This has to happen over and over again until they start to view things more (not completely) as a couple or family focus on the problem, i.e. “we get stuck” rather than “it’s her/his fault.”

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  14. allquieton on December 8, 2010 at 12:56 PM

    If someone truly is acting out of love (good intention), and the other gets hurt, I would chalk it up the the second person’s immense pride.

    But it seems to me, in most cases of “open and honest” communication, the first person will claim their intentions are good, when they are actually selfish and petty.

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  15. jks on December 8, 2010 at 12:57 PM

    Perhaps if you knew this woman you would be more sympathetic to her problems with insensitivity.
    I remember running through the grocery store trying to find my lost child and accidentally bumping into someone and she muttered “b*&^%!” at me. Would she have been so angry at my rudeness had she known my exact circumstance?
    I remember when my son and I were checking out at a grocery store and my son noticed a little person. He said something to me about her. She then in a rude voice told me, “You should teach your son.”
    Yeah, my preschool “special ed” son who tested extremely low in cognitive, social and communication. The one who used to lie down in the corner in nursery and not participate like the other children.
    I’m guessing she didn’t realize that she was judging a special needs child.
    Anyway, if this woman had an insensitive conversation wtih you, chances are she does it with others and it is just part of being involved in a community. It’s better just to laugh about it….everyone is a little crazy in their own way.

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  16. Paul on December 8, 2010 at 1:10 PM

    #8: “I meant to add that when something like what took place happens to someone at church it needs to be discussed, but its’ not why, because the church as a whole does not deal with conflict in a positive manner.”

    Hmmm. I think the point of the OP is that it doesn’t always need to be discussed. Not this specific case — I can’t judge that — but in general.

    I think at church we try to assume the best about our fellow congregants, and so we try to avoid calling people out publicly and we try to avoid gossiping about them privately. Not every conflict needs to be resolved by rewarding the winner and punishing the loser. Some we can simply let go and move on.

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  17. AdamF on December 8, 2010 at 2:02 PM

    #14 allquiteon – “If someone truly is acting out of love (good intention), and the other gets hurt, I would chalk it up the the second person’s immense pride.”

    I hear you on that. I can’t speak for regular life, but in therapy this just puts the attribution (read: blame) on the second person, thus contributing to the couple’s (or the relationship between any two people) problems. A more useful attribution is to blame what happens between people – the best of intentions, underlying vulnerabilities, desire to connect and communicate – these messages can get lost between people. I agree, pride is an issue, it’s just that blaming someone for being prideful is part of the problem, and on and on it goes. I think Paul #16 has a good point, that some things are better left unsaid, or we just need to move on if possible, because we don’t just get therapy or mediation to resolve conflicts, unless there’s a lot of money or someone’s safety involved.

    But it seems to me, in most cases of “open and honest” communication, the first person will claim their intentions are good, when they are actually selfish and petty.”

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  18. AdamF on December 8, 2010 at 2:03 PM

    Re: blame – I have seen a ton of partners say, “Well, I have the best intentions for my wife/daughter/husband/etc. and I love them and if they can’t see that when I do a/b/c then that’s their problem.” The problem is that this stance is part of the overall pattern of the problem.

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  19. hawkgrrrl on December 8, 2010 at 2:32 PM

    The other problem I see with always speaking your mind is that your opinions become more set the more you state them. It’s harder to change a stance once it crystallizes. And relationships are always about listening and adapting, not just being heard and loved for “who you are.” You should also be “becoming” who you are, not just staying the same forever.

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  20. diane on December 8, 2010 at 2:32 PM

    14) Completely disagree with you on that one, because I’m always suppose to accept what ever comment some nut job has to say precisely because they always say,” I’m saying this to help you.” Totally ludicrous to then say that if you(I) don’t accept what your saying because it really was offensive that I then have an issue with pride.

    Because what then happens especially, when dealing with the topic of mental illness is not only do I wind up being silenced, but shamed simply because someone wants to assert spiritual abuse,

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  21. AdamF on December 8, 2010 at 2:37 PM

    19 – Hawk – exactly – we become MORE entrenched in our views, and more convinced of our evaluations of others just by expressing them.

    20 – diane – Yeah, I see that. While blaming the other person is not helpful, in no way is blaming you for “being prideful” or “not listening to the intent that they want to help” helpful either. I’m not sure how this works outside of couple or family contexts, but I’m intrigued. There needs to be some way for both people in a conflict to see what happens between them, to see how we each have our own responsibilities, for sure, and we each contribute stuff to conflict, but that blaming someone for “not having enough faith” or whatever is not helpful.

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  22. diane on December 8, 2010 at 3:48 PM

    The other problem that I have with the notion is that everything is more palatable if done out of love is this.

    Spousal abuse is done out of love, so is child abuse, yada, yada, yada. That doesn’t make these instance any more right and as I’ve said previously to throw it back on to the one who is on the receiving end of and say the have pride, is so not right I can’t even verbalize how ludicrous sounding that kind of thinking is with me

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  23. Heather on December 8, 2010 at 3:54 PM

    @ #5 brjones — Well, what are we talking about? Dissatisfaction with things about a spouse’s physical appearance that they cannot change? The size of a certain body part? The presence of female chin hair? Or a spouse’s taste in music or the like? For example, a woman who loves Twilight and her husband despises it? Things of that nature? OR, are we talking about “issues”? Things like Prop 8 (as was specifically mentioned in this blog)? Or problems in the relationship? Or, things like a husband’s bad breath? Or a wife’s substantial weight gain?

    Obviously it would be ridiculous to say that a spouse should be able to freely admit that they are dissatisfied with a spouse’s physical appearance (in so much as the spouse can’t control those things — like chin hair or “shoe” size, as I mentioned above). It would be nothing more than cruel. The same goes for other things in that list. It doesn’t satisfy anything in the relationship to make fun of a spouse for inherent characteristics.

    But that isn’t what this blog was talking about. At least I didn’t take it that way.

    There is a difference between being unnecessarily cruel and being able to discuss everything – even the hard stuff.

    There will be issues that arise in marriage that will hurt one of the spouse’s feelings. But that doesn’t mean that those issues don’t need to be addressed. Which is better, to hurt a husband’s feelings when you tell him that his snoring is a problem and addressing the issue? Or remaining silent, building resentment, and being completely exhausted all the time? I for one think that letting little resentments like that pile up are one of the ways that a good marriage is ruined.

    My husband and I also call each other on our BS. When it comes to political or social thins we disagree about, we debate about them often. We challenge what each other thinks. We don’t dance around them or avoid them because it might hurt the other person’s feelings that we don’t agree with them. I don’t have personal investment in my husband holding different political views than me. So I don’t get my panties in a twist when we disagree. If I took his disagreement as some sort of attack on my personal integrity, then of course discussing political things would be a problem. But that isn’t a justification for having to keep one’s mouth shut. It’s a reason for me to grow the bleep up.

    The point is, there is a difference between effective communication and “going along to get along.”

    A problem that I see in many of my friend’s marriages is that they have personal investment in whether or not their spouse agrees with them on EVERYTHING. It would hurt their feelings if they found out their husband was dissatisfied with the amount of weight they’ve gained. They expect their spouse to shut up about it and deal. Or, they’d get hurt feelings if their husband were to tell them that they were being selfish or unreasonable or that they didn’t know what they were talking about on some certain issue.

    I would MUCH rather be in a relationship where my husband felt free to tell me, “I love you, but you need to lose weight.” Or, “I love you, but I think you’re being an ignorant bigot and here is why.”

    I agree with what “Course Correction” said in comment #1. Insisting that people agree with you on everything (or keeping their mouth shut so you can pretend they agree with you on everything) is pure ego.

    (This comment isn’t directed at you specifically either. It’s just a general response to your response.) :-)

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  24. AdamF on December 8, 2010 at 3:56 PM

    diane – Indeed. Claiming good intentions does not justify bad behavior. Sometimes it can help make things more understandable (hopefully) but it does not make it justified or even effective. Hang in there!

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  25. hawkgrrrl on December 8, 2010 at 3:56 PM

    diane – I agree that people do some pretty crappy things in the name of love. I prefer to think that people are just doing the best they know how. Even though it’s not necessarily even true, it does help reframe everything they do to be about them, not about me, which is a more accurate reflection of what people are saying or doing. Yet, there’s nothing wrong with correcting someone either. But I would likewise say, try to get to the point where you only do it if it’s really to help them, not just to help you. Pointing out stupid or bad behavior can help people to do better in the future at times. Just not all times and not all people.

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  26. hawkgrrrl on December 8, 2010 at 4:01 PM

    Trying to get a spouse to lose weight or pluck a chin hair is another area where I think it’s best to talk about how a change would help the relationship. Too much of these types of criticisms are about the spouse feeling they “deserve” someone who looks better, which to me is a whiny conversation that is not very productive. I think you have to focus on yourself first (BE fit & attractive) and the relationship second (find ways to become more fit or more attractive together). Dumping it all on your spouse for failing to be good enough for you is destined to fail.

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  27. AdamF on December 8, 2010 at 4:04 PM

    Heather – you bring up some good points, and your example of your relationship with your husband is a good one of couples who can thrive on more lively exchanges, debate, disagreements, etc. and do fine.

    “There will be issues that arise in marriage that will hurt one of the spouse’s feelings. But that doesn’t mean that those issues don’t need to be addressed. Which is better, to hurt a husband’s feelings when you tell him that his snoring is a problem and addressing the issue? Or remaining silent, building resentment, and being completely exhausted all the time?”

    I think BOTH of these ways can be problematic. Some things really should not be shared, at least not at certain times. Take an issue with prop 8, for example – say the two people disagree. Talking about an issue that for many is SO sensitive and personal and likely to end in pain, is not always a good idea. If you each know there is a difference of opinion, and talking about it only drums up pain in an otherwise great relationship, why insist on calling each other bigots? If you and your husband can be that direct and it DOESN’T create storms between you, THAT’S GREAT!!! Actually, couples that are a little more on the turbulent side generally have more romance 25 years into the marriage. So I’m happy for you. :)

    Sometimes therapy is a safe enough place to share stuff that probably shouldn’t be brought up just out of the blue. On the other hand, sitting and building resentment is not helpful either.

    In a perfect world where everyone had good therapy, a wife could say to a husband that she felt secure with, “This is difficult to bring up, but we need to do something about your snoring.” And the husband might say, CLEARLY, “Yeah, it’s actually kind of embarrassing to have this problem, and that it has to be brought up. I’m sorry it bothers you. Because I’m feeling a little embarrassed, can you reassure me right now?” Then the wife says, “Sure, I love you!” etc. etc. etc.

    These things CAN certainly be brought up. They probably shouldn’t be if the same couple above can’t avoid getting into stuff that hurts each other… or they need to learn how to create a new process in therapy.

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  28. diane on December 8, 2010 at 4:43 PM

    Well, just to let everyone know, I did call my bishop this morning and left a message with him to say that I wanted to speak in Sacrament meeting about this. And, I also spoke to my Stake President because I told him I think we need to do a fireside. He seemed to be pretty receptive at the christmas devotional, but as of yet, has not contacted me any further.

    I may just have Sister Mary Scullion come and speak on the matter. For those of you who don’t know who she is: She runs Project Home in Philadelphia and has been to the White House many times and I know her because of my situation of being homeless.

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  29. Paul on December 8, 2010 at 4:47 PM

    22 – Diane, I think you’re on to something. When I start to say something to “change” someone else, I have to wonder what I’m doing. What role and I playing? Is it my place to correct or to teach? Maybe with my kids, but rarely with anyone else, except by specific assignment or specific agreement with the person involved.

    I think we have a right to express our feelings, as in, “That comment hurt me, and I choose not to participate in this conversation any more” or “I don’t agree with what you’ve said, and I find your comment hurtful to me.” And we certainly have a right to draw boundaries around ourselves to protect ourselves.

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  30. diane on December 8, 2010 at 6:46 PM

    Sorry to have been a comment hog, but I think at least the situation did apply and I really needed to vent

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  31. AdamF on December 8, 2010 at 6:55 PM

    No worries diane – I appreciate you bringing in some personal stuff to the topic.

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  32. Conifer on December 8, 2010 at 8:04 PM

    I think this is absolutely true. In my marriage I’m glad to say that we’ve learned that there are some arguments we can sidestep entirely because we’ve had them enough times that we know how it ends. We can get right to the clarification and apology (if necessary). It saves a lot of time and hard feelings.

    I think it’s very true that there are some things you just won’t ever agree with your spouse about and it’s usually better to just leave it alone. Usually it’s something that won’t affect your whole marriage. If it’s something really central, though, like whether or not to have kids, you might have a disagreement that’s too big to handle. Just not talking about it won’t help then, but I’m not sure what would.

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  33. AdamF on December 8, 2010 at 9:29 PM

    #32 – Gottman found that most disagreements are never resolved in marriage, even into old age (these studies were done with some pretty good samples over 2-3 decades). Happy couples can disagree just as much as unhappy couples, they just do a better job of managing the conflict, not getting stuck in the same negative patterns over and over again (with increasing negativity), and can also share their dreams or what is behind their stance in the disagreement.

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  34. Conifer on December 8, 2010 at 10:03 PM

    I do remember something like that from his research and book, but it’s been a long time since I’ve read either. Thanks for the reminder; I may have to go pick them up again.

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