Learning how to deal with differences is key to maintaining a healthy relationship.
"Love and marriage…you can't have one without the other," sang Frank Sinatra.
But you've got to add conflict to the mix too. Because—no matter how long your honeymoon—being wedded isn't all bliss.
The language of getting along
Mastering problem-solving skills is a must if your marriage is going to stay healthy, says Susan Heitler, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in helping struggling couples build stronger marriages.
"There's a shared language you need to learn. A shared method for decision making and solving problems," says Dr. Heitler.
Author of several books on marriage, including The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong & Loving Marriage (New Harbinger Publications, 1997) and The Power of Two Workbook (New Harbinger Publications, 2003), Dr. Heitler says successful couples go through a transition from "me" to "we" thinking.
That doesn't mean giving up your own identity, she says. But it does mean realizing that holding grudges and insisting on being right doesn't help your marriage—you're a team now.
"That defensive, antagonistic behavior is a sign of a skill deficit," Dr. Heitler says. "You need to learn more positive ways to deal with differences."
"Marriage is for adults—it isn't for whining children or angry teenagers," she adds. "The same skills that enable people to be successful at work, maintain close friendships and be excellent parents are vital to a good marriage.
"In situations where there's a 'his' way and a 'her' way, successful couples create an 'our' way," she says.
"For example, after a shower, his way is to scrunch the towel back onto the towel rack. Her way is to fold the towel neatly into thirds," she says. "If hanging towels becomes a source of conflict, successful couples—with laughter and affection—find a new 'our' way.
"Maybe they will both decide to drop their towels in the laundry basket instead and always have clean, freshly folded towels," Dr. Heitler suggests. Keeping the peace may be worth the higher laundry bill.
"The same style of talking that resolves simpler issues like hanging towels works on the full range of situations," Dr. Heitler says.
Whatever the topic you're negotiating—household chores, finances, vacation plans, time together and time apart—look for common ground, advises The Family Institute, an organization devoted to marital and family therapy, professional education, and research.
Determine which aspects of the issue you see the same way, then consider ways to handle the aspects you differ on. Remember to attack the problem, not the person.
Dr. Heitler adds, talk "until you understand each other's concerns. Then create a solution responsive to what matters to both of you."
While couples can—and should—sort through differences, they also need to be clear about what behavior is absolutely unacceptable in a marriage, Dr. Heitler says.
It can be helpful to discuss these "deal breakers" up front, early in a marriage or, even better, before rings are exchanged.
Deal breakers often revolve around "the three A's," Dr. Heitler says:
Alcohol (or other addiction).
Anger that is excessive or out-of-control.
"You need to talk explicitly about these factors," Dr. Heitler says.
"Alcohol addiction, affairs and excessive anger hurt, and may even endanger, at least one and often both marriage partners," Dr. Heitler adds.
If the behaviors occur, address them directly. Unwillingness to address these problems may mean it's time to consider seriously whether the marriage should be preserved.
Learn and remember
Here are more tips on marriage from the American Psychological Association and The Family Institute:
- When faced with a conflict or dilemma, consider "what does the relationship need?"
- Ask what differences you can let go of or live with. Which are meaningful and worth holding on to? Can you compromise?
- Avoid making assumptions.
- Communicate openly and nondefensively.
- Accept differences. Laugh about them. Remember, everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Even you!
- Set aside time together as a couple. Make plans for things to do together.
- Remember what first brought you together and talk about it.
- Have fun.