Understanding and Resolving Conflicting Goals in Marriage Distinguishing what type of "partner path" you and your spouse share can lead to clear and concise relationship goals. BY KATE STEWART, PH.D.
Understanding the goals of your spouse will improve the satisfaction of your marriage.
“ Grant your spouse the freedom to be themselves to the extent that it does not harm you.”
Whether it’s your first year of marriage, 10th or beyond you know that conflicting goals can put a major crimp in the operations of your relationship. Disagreements about finances, friends, vacation plans and which way the toilet paper roll should face can put snags in an otherwise smooth relational fabric.
Disagreements are inevitable. Like money, conflicts are neither good nor bad. How you manage conflicts determines the impact on your relationship. When managed poorly, conflicts tear at the relational fabric. When managed well, the seams are stronger than ever.
In my conversations with couples in conflict, I find that each tends to fall into one of three groups based on how the spouse defines a good relationship; and metaphors help us express our underlying beliefs. Asking one another to define how a good relationship is like a path exposes these three groups.
The Single Path Partner: "We walk hand-in-hand on the same path."
The Single Path Partner thinks both individuals should be alike in their needs and desires.
Childhood fairytales promote the idea of meeting Prince Charming or Princess Snow White and living happily ever after in perfect bliss. People in this group often tell me, "I want to be with someone who thinks like I do—we will walk the same path side-by-side for the rest of our lives."
It’s a nice image. However, we all invariably discover that we are not the same person as our spouse. We want something they don’t want and they want something we don’t want.
The first time this happens represents a volatile point in the relationship and the two of you may ask yourselves: "Does this mean we don’t belong together?" "Were we ever on the same path?" "Are you the person I thought you were?" "Where do we go from here?!"
The Parallel Path Partner: "We walk side-by-side on parallel paths."
The Parallel Path Partner wants to please the other but recognizes the need to guard their own boundaries too.
People in this group value both their goals and their spouse’s goals. They have developed a sense of their own needs and desires and know where their hard and soft boundaries lie. They know where to compromise and where to stand firm. They believe that a healthy relationship requires an equal commitment to personal goals and awareness of boundaries and say things like: "I would like to spend the day cleaning the garage. How does that fit with your plans?" "What kind of work would you like to be doing?" "How can we do this in a way that works for both of us?"
The My Path or No Path Partner: "I will continue to walk my path and hope you’ll join me."
My Path Partners are accustomed to doing things their own way. It may be due to a strong personality, a desire to control, fear of uncertainty, a belief in the "rightness" of their way, or a variety of other reasons. The bottom line is that My Path Partners have a difficult time honoring the needs of their spouse when those needs conflict with their own desires.
In many cases, My Path Partners are motivated by a belief that they are showing care and love for their spouse. Since they know best and wish to keep their partner safe and happy, they impose their wishes… with the very best of intentions and will carry them out and tell you: "I’ve picked the best route for our roadtrip." "We’re hosting a party next weekend. The invitations have already been sent." "You’re doing it wrong. You should…" and so on.
Which group do you most identify with? Which group do you think your spouse represents? Here are some possible combinations.
Single Path Partner with Parallel Path Partner. If you are a Single Path Partner paired with a Parallel Path Partner, you may find yourself struggling to maintain your boundaries. You attempt to walk side-by-side on parallel paths while your spouse attempts to find ways to merge your paths. They expect you to have the same needs and desires as they do. If you are the Single Path Partner in this pairing, you may see your partner’s resistance as a lack of love or commitment to you. Is this a sign they are not on the same path? This may feel quite confusing and threatening to you.
Parallel Path Partner with My Path Partner. What if you are a Parallel Path Partner and your significant other is a My Path Partner? You may believe your spouse is unfairly imposing her will on you and not granting you freedom and independence. If you are the My Path Partner, you may believe you are showing love and respect to your spouse through your leadership, guidance and protection. You likely find your partner’s resistance irritating and disrespectful. This combination can result in frustration for the two of you.
Single Path Partners with My Path Partners. The result here is sometimes a codependent relationship. In order to preserve the illusion of unity, the Single Path Partner may work diligently to mirror the needs and desires of the My Path Partner. Over time, the Single Path Partner may resent the sacrifices he has made to maintain the relationship. The My Way partner can view these changes as threatening because they upset the relationship balance.
Two Single Path Partners: At the outset, the future looks rosy to this couple. They imagine they will easily satisfy one another’s needs and desires. They think they will rarely face conflict because they are "perfect" for each other. Imagine their surprise the first time they disagree about childrearing or spiritual values or whether to buy a Ford or Chevy. In many cases, these types flounder as they seek together to return to a common path.
Two My Path Partners: Two My Path Partners frequently find themselves in power struggles. Misunderstandings can also result as each spouse pursues individual interests without communicating well with the other.
Two Parallel Path Partners: These folks have found a healthy way to balance the needs of their relationship, of their spouse and of themselves. When both partners in a couple are in this group and have compatible communication styles and skills, they will do well. In fact, these couples may define their relationship as "perfect" because they are able to manage agreements and disagreements in a manner that strengthens the relationship and one another at the same time.
With the exception of Parallel Path couples, when group characteristics are extremely entrenched, relationships sometimes come to an end. Fortunately, there is hope for couples with all these combinations. Skilled therapy, coaching or mediation can help them collaboratively define the type of relationship they wish to create together and the means to do it.
Advice For Each Group
Whichever group you represent, you can take steps to strengthen your marriage.
Recommendations for Single Path Partners * Expect your spouse’s needs and desires to differ from yours. * Practice viewing the differences in your partner as the very things that make the relationship interesting. * Seek complementarities with your spouse rather than similarities. * Grant your spouse the freedom to be themselves to the extent that it does not harm you. * Seek help from trusted advisors (therapist, coach, mediator, etc.) in defining your unique identity and boundaries. * Recognize that expecting him or her to satisfy your needs is unreasonable. Neither you nor your spouse can satisfy all the needs in a marriage.
Recommendations for Parallel Path Partners * Develop practices that test and reinforce your motivations and boundaries. * Learn communication skills to help negotiate your interests with your spouse in a way that puts the least stress on the relationship. * If your partner is in another group, consider whether a trusted advisor (therapist, coach, mediator, etc.) might help the two of you collaboratively define how your relationship will be.
Recommendations for My Path Partners * Recognize that truly loving another means understanding that person’s needs and desires. You may not choose to fulfill them, but you should respect them just as you expect your needs and desires to be treated with respect. * Consider how you can provide leadership by collaborating. * When you sense ongoing resistance, consider whether a trusted advisor (therapist, coach, mediator, etc.) can help the two of you adapt to one another’s styles. * Brainstorm the conflicts you are likely to face. Together, plan ahead on how you will handle them in a manner that makes you both comfortable.
Relationships take a great deal of attention. We all tend to believe that our significant other sees things as we do… or should. In fact, each of us sees the world through different eyes. We define good relationships in different ways.
Challenging? Yes. Worth the effort? Most definitely.
Kate Stewart, Ph.D. is a certified mediator, author, organizational consultant, and executive coach. She recently founded the web-based Gold Scaffold system (www.goldscaffold.com) to enable people to overcome procrastination, impulsiveness, and weak willpower to achieve their goals. Dr. Stewart also authors a blog at www.myscaffolds.com.