Our latest article has been published in the Chiswick Herald on page 27, click here or read it below.
Relationship dilemmas - what to do when you want different things.
Over the next few months we will be outlining different dilemmas faced in relationships, in this article we will look at what happens when couples want different things.
The struggle for couples to find a way to handle situations when they both want different things is often brought to therapy. Where there is a repeating pattern of a couple not getting what they want resentment tends to build, goodwill is eroded, the relationship becomes a power struggle and the couple grow further and further apart.
There are only two possible outcomes when a couple find they have different wants:
- One gets what they want, the other changes position
- A compromise is reached
There is often a misunderstanding about “compromise”. Compromise still means that neither will get what they originally wanted however through working together they will find something new they both want.
What this tells us is that being in a relationship means a couple cannot realistically have an expectation they will both get what they want. A healthy relationship is therefore one where both agree that they will do whatever is needed to maintain and develop the relationship.
This sounds obvious however when a partner starts to struggle instead of the focus being on “what do we need to do?” it tends to go to what each partner needs to do individually. Whilst this is a natural response it is simply not helpful. It is often also something about trust - trust that we can be understood and that we will end up with something helpful.
Here is a hypothetical but typical situation - J and M have been together for just over ten years, last year M’s father died suddenly. J was in the middle of a redundancy programme at work at the time and although J escaped redundancy the environment has been unpleasant. M’s work have been very supportive but M has increased the amount of overseas travel. Over the last few months arguments have started to do with domestic chores and money, whilst sex has become sporadic and routine.
Summer is coming and thoughts have turned to the annual holiday. J wants to go somewhere hot and lay on a beach in an all inclusive resort whilst M wants to go on a walking holiday staying in self catering accommodation.
When they tried to discuss this they argued, it happened much like the other arguments they had been having but this time J picked up a bottle of wine and threw it at the wall. They found they were both shaken by what had happened and came to therapy. We looked closely at what had been said and how argument had developed. What we found was that:
First, they each stated what they wanted and then commented on what the other said they wanted.
Second, they said how the other had hurt them.
Third, they criticised each others behaviour in their conversation so M criticised J’s anger whilst J criticised M’s withdrawing.
So what is wrong with this? Well lets start at the end and work backwards:-
1. In arguments peoples behaviours are the revealing of defence mechanisms. Their activation is actually a sign that the individual is upset and responding - so this needs to be seen as an issue of the relationship - not the individuals. (With the exception of abusive behaviours). So instead of the behaviour it is more helpful to focus and understand the triggers. Ultimately to catch and prevent situations before they require defences.
2. In our relationships we have hurt feelings when our expectations are not met. Whilst is makes apparent sense to blame the other person it is far more helpful to think about how it is we have differing expectations. (Unless we believe the other person is abusive - in which case what are you still doing there?)
3. People often come up with solutions for problems and then are annoyed when others do not agree with the solutions. In relationships, a solution for something affecting both can only be found when both have agreed and understood the problem.
So back to J and M. The “problem” was that they were both exhausted and upset with how the relationship was going and they recognised that their exhaustion was preventing them from being as flexible as they had been in the past. They had both been worried for themselves and each other and realised they had been trying to go on as normal and that included the holiday planning. They both agreed that the solution was they needed a holiday to relax / recuperate and when asked to think about each other they accurately identified they tended to have different ways of relaxing and recuperating (“expectations”). It had never occurred to them that holidaying apart might be feasible, fleeting thoughts had been dismissed because part of being on holiday was usually about enjoying time together. But this was not usual and so unusual solutions were valid. They agreed that for this holiday they would take separate holidays but they would also plan an extended weekend away together for a month later.