Weathering the Storms

QUESTION:

I am 28 years old and engaged to Matt, who is 30. We have known each other for three years, have been engaged for a year and the wedding date is in six months. Things were fine for us until a couple of months ago. We started planning the wedding and disagreed over many details, such as the guest list and what we should serve at the reception. Now we are disputing more and more things, including what we do on weekends. Each time we have an argument we make up, but these arguments are becoming more frequent. Will our marriage be like this? Should I be worried?

— Lindsay in Lee’s Summit

ANSWER:

All marriages have differences. I know only one person who claims to have a perfect marriage. She also lies about her age and her hair color. 

The differences that you and Matt have now will not magically disappear when you are married. You will need to work these differences out and there is no harm in starting now. The question is, how should you do this?

Some therapists will tell you that whenever you have differences, you need to confront them immediately and directly–that if you avoid arguments you are in denial of bigger problems. Other therapists say that arguing makes no difference in the long run, that in whatever way you deal with differences “things will straighten out.” 

The truth is that no one really understands the best way to handle differences in a marriage. Psychologist and author John Gottman, known for his work on marital stability and relationship analysis through scientific direct observations, expresses it well when he wrote in an article called “Why Marriages Fail” in Networker Magazine: 

“Every therapist knows how mysterious marriage can be–witness the apparently incompatible couples who seem to have more fights in a week than most spouses have in a year, but still stay together for a lifetime, and even seem to be happy with each other. Or at the other extreme, consider those couples who approach potential conflict like a fatal virus, dodging and hedging around disagreeable subjects, unable to openly discuss, let alone resolve, what would seem to be the critical issues in their marriage. And yet, these same couples–frequently labeled “in denial” or “repressed” by the marital therapy profession–not infrequently raise families and merrily celebrate 30th and 40th wedding anniversaries in spite of doomsday prognoses. 

….for all our theorizing about how a good marriage coheres and a bad one unravels, few of us can claim to know very much about the mysterious inner workings of this most intimate relationship.” 

Sometimes in a marriage, fighting over small issues is a symptom of larger worries. If a husband yells at his wife for using too many paper towels, he might really be worried that she is spending his paycheck on frivolous items and they are not saving enough for retirement. It may be too painful for him to confront the real fear because it is too much for him to face. Often, the real fears stem from childhood. He may have not had control over his time or money as a child and when he sees his paper towels–and indirectly his paycheck–being wasted, he goes back to his feelings of helplessness. 

You and Matt have many important areas of decision-making coming up, including:

• How you spend and save your money.

• Becoming parents. 

• Your children’s religious training.

• Dealing with in-laws.

• How you spend your leisure time. 

Whatever may be the cause of your arguments, it is important for you and Matt to learn how to make these decisions together. As Gottman alluded, married couples can successfully work out their differences using very different styles. You and Matt need to find the best style for the two of you.

When you and Matt talk about the big issues, your conversation needs to directly address these issues and you need to understand the implications of your decision. For example, if you are of different religions, there is the decision of which religion you will teach your children. Many couples whom I counsel now avoided this issue before marriage, thinking that “it will all work out.” They’re paying the price now for this decision and face irreconcilable and emotionally-charged differences about how their children are raised. Even if one parent gets his way in the current situation, he is often sabotaged by the other parent. 

Again, it’s imperative to establish how you and Matt will make these important decisions. If you can’t do this easily, go to a counselor. A third party can help both of you maintain the delicate balance between autonomy and being in a committed relationship. A counselor can also help you learn another important skill in marriage: fighting fair. This means that you express disagreement, even unhappiness and strong anger, without personally attacking your partner and using intimate personal information against him. 

As you and Matt list issues to work out, you may be wondering if marriage is worth all of this. One could say the same thing about child rearing. If you were to list the expenses, responsibilities, time and the emotional drain of raising a child, it would be hard to logically justify. But most people still find raising children worthwhile. 

It’s the same with marriage. Life is meant for sharing and the intangible rewards of a long-term, committed relationship are well worth it.


words: Susan A. Horen

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