Before I married my husband, I had a lot of ideas about the way a strong marriage was supposed to work. And because we loved spending time together and never fought, I felt like we had a lot going for us. I thought that the fact that we rarely disagreed was a huge bonus for our marriage.
It wasn’t until our second year of marriage, when I learned he had no clue I was upset about going to bed alone while he watched a movie or played a video game, that I realized how wrong I was about playing nice in relationships. When we finally talked it out, we discovered the solution was as simple as communicating better. This helped us to learn more about each other and our expectations for our relationship.
What no one really tells you about relationships is that disputes aren’t just unavoidable, they’re essential. Over the course over of our relationship, I’ve had to learn this lesson over and over again. Disagreeing, or simply bringing up my disappointments or frustrations, isn’t necessarily a sign of relational weakness, it’s a sign that we’re growing.
The problem with peace at all costs
Peacekeeping seems to come naturally to my husband and me. Growing up as middle children, we both played the role of mediator in our families. When you get a lot of positive feedback from your friends and family for getting along well with others, it starts to feel like a virtue. But, there is a problem with keeping the peace at all costs.
Avoiding conflict, especially in my marriage, can be a kind of false front. It makes me feel better, because it appears there is always harmony in our marriage. But not fighting isn’t the same as always being in agreement. When you’re not willing to hash out the disagreements and disappointments that naturally arise in a relationship, they can turn into resentment. When I feel there is an unfair division of household labor, I can bring it up from the start or grumble under my breath each time I empty the dishwasher.
Agreeing to disagree
It took time, but we’ve both learned that it is better to speak up when we’re frustrated or upset. Honestly, it hasn’t been an easy shift. I find myself avoiding him at times, because I’m avoiding addressing the elephant in the room. But when we finally talk about the thing we’ve been a little snippy about off and on for days, like my habit of nitpicking or his of leaving a mess behind after he packs lunch, things feel better between us. We both have the chance to reflect on how our actions impact the other, and we can correct course for the sake of the other.
We’ve also made a habit of checking in when the other seems on edge, not in an accusatory way, but just asking what’s going on. Personally, I’m learning to speak up in the moment when he says or does something that feels hurtful or frustrating to me. We’ve learned that being in a committed relationship isn’t about getting along all of the time. We are different people, and because of this, differences are going to arise.
Having healthy conflict
Of course, no one likes to clash with the person they love, but conflict is a part of any relationship. For us, conflict has served two purposes. First, it has been a reminder that we are each our own person and that it is important to love the other as they are. At the same time, conflict also calls attention to an area in our relationship that needs a little extra work. For instance, when we recently disagreed about a single purchase, it was a reminder to me that we hadn’t really talked about our financial goals much lately. The problem wasn’t the purchase, it was the fact that we weren’t on the same page.
Approaching conflict isn’t easy, but I have found it helps to remind myself that it’s all part of the process of learning and growing together. Healthy conflict is crucial to being honest with your partner, it helps you avoid growing resentments, and when you work together to find a solution, your relationship is stronger than ever.
Sweeping frustration under the rug is never helpful, whether you’re in a new or long-term relationship. Leaning into that initial discomfort and coming together to find a resolution is essential to better understanding and caring for each other.
Originally published on April 5, 2018.