When We Disagree about Our Disagreements


I received a great question from a reader not much enjoying her third year of marriage because of a disagreement about how to handle disagreements.
The example she gave is requesting not to be interrupted even when she’s speaking slowly. She wants time to get her complete thought out.
I suspect the same problem could emerge over other issues you and I have run into, such as a request to leave more braking distance between cars when driving at high speeds. A request not to set sneakers on the kitchen counter or leave rakes tines up in the grass might be similar. So might asking for less pork and more chicken in their dinner menus.
Her problem is not with making such requests but with the way he prefers to handle such requests.
She would like to make the request, politely and without any accusation that there is something wrong with his way, then patiently wait while he changes his behavior to provide what she needs.
If you’re thinking he doesn’t want to change for her, this doesn’t seem to be the case. What he wants to do is root cause analysis, a little bit of at-home therapy. He wants to help her see where her needs come from and give her the chance to change the need instead of his behavior.
Is this just a creative form of passive resistance? Probably not, because he says a degree of intimacy would be missing from their marriage if they were not free to discuss such things. He wants to be quietly heard out on his views. And he’s clear it’s the discussion he values, not necessarily any particular outcome.
So she tries to hear him out. She can now listen for up to twenty minutes before she’s too angry to continue.
His analyses often sound to her like insults to her mother or other family members. They stem from descriptions of her behavior or thoughts that she does not acknowledge as valid. They feel to her like he wants to change who she is, while she asks only that he change what he does. She would like to do without any of this therapy-like discussion. It decreases intimacy for her.
I am asking you to help. Let’s imagine she’s ready to jump the net and tell her husband, “I want you to have what you’re looking for, but I cannot give it to you this way. Let’s find another.” Let’s give them some ideas to try out, some questions to ask each other, so they can find a Third Alternative.
Their Third Alternative Specs
As I understand it, what she wants is to be able to ask him to change a few behaviors to make her more comfortable. While she’s willing to hear no when her needs conflict with his, most of the time, she expects a gradual change in these distressing behaviors. What she wants to avoid is feeling that she, her mother, or other family members are dysfunctional because she wants these changes.
What he wants is to be able to contribute to her emotional growth by using his analytical skills and insight into people. He most likely wants to discuss the causes of his own preferences and annoyances, too. What he wants to avoid is any off-limits topics in their marriage. I will go out on a limb and say he also wants to avoid changing his behavior in a way that enables her to stay stuck in an old problem.
To the gal who so generously offered up the question, I thank you, and I know my readers will have some great answers for you. Some are marriage therapists or fellow marriage educators. Others just have years of trial-and-error learning in their own marriages. And a few are just brilliant, creative thinkers when it’s someone else’s problem and not their own.
So, good reader, please post your ideas in the comments section online.
Obviously, their first two options (I ask nicely / you change and let me tell you why you want me to change) don’t work for this couple. Neither is the right method for them. What other approaches to getting both sets of wants met and both sets of avoids avoided might they consider as their Third Alternative? And what questions might help them find their way?

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.


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  • This sounds like an issue of power, of who’s right, who’s better, who’s got the best insights, more influence or who is in control, i.e. power. Power, in my experience, is usually about fear. Change or changing for someone is a way many of us see of relinquishing our power. By NOT addressing the power dynamic involved it sounds like they’re both able to keep focusing on the change/no change issue. It’s not about change at all…

  • Power, or a need for power, comes from feeling insecure, unsafe, scared, cowardly etc. By diverting the issue of being scared to the issue of change, both participants get to avoid the true issue – which is why nothing is ever resolved. I think creating an alternative to who has to be vulnerable (ie submit to chance and concede power) is how I’d address it. If both are so clearly committed to doing what it takes to change (as long as it only involves the OTHER person changing) then find a way to address the fear.
    Ask questions about “what would it look like, feel like, be like” IF Jane changed THIS behavior willingly and joyfully?
    How many behaviors would John have to change to make Jane meet her needs? List ALL the behaviors (both sides) each would like to see change and five reasons WHY they would like to see them changed. Generic, “I’d just feel more comfortable,” answers do not count. Things like:
    I’d like John to listen quietly and respectfully to my expression of concern for a full 5 (or 10, or 15…) minutes and then I’d like him to think about what I said for one full minute for responding. When he responds I’d like him to repeat back, paraphrased not word-for-word what I said before he says “no.” When he says “no,” I’d like to understand why he is saying no, such as, “I am saying no because as you spoke I remembered my dad/mom used to be annoyed with that same behavior and it makes me feel defensive and not valued or respected to hear you wanting to change it too. It’s something I do and value and don’t want to give up.”
    It’s not going to be easy to do, but I think if both parties start looking at the dynamic as one of past power/control issues it may break something open for them.

  • Trying to change someone else is a fruitless battle. It sounds like both members of this couple are correct in identifying the other’s issues, but they can only change things about themself. Trying to change someone else is the wrong way to go about this.
    If I were the wife, I’d look into myself to discover why interrupting upsets me so much and work on that. It is not what he is doing that is the problem, it is how she responds to it.
    When she does that, and lets him know she is doing that, this releases him from battling against her attempts to control him. It is entirely up to him to choose/not choose a similar path of self inquiry.
    My husband cracks gum like a cow pulling its foot out of the mud. God forgive me, I used to complain about this. Now I meditate or turn on the radio to a classical station. The only person I can change is me.

  • He is going to have to stop playing therapist and she is going to have to give up her off limit topics. I do not see how a practitioner/patient relationship can work in a marriage. On the other hand I do not see how off limit topics can work either. Family members really CAN be that bad. I’d like more info about the mother and sister. It sounds as if some boundaries need to be set with family. When Tammy and I began to allow commentary on everything including family, it opened things up, made for better conversation and empowered both of us. We are now far more relaxed when voicing familial concerns. What a relief! It sounds as if this couple needs a good dose of humor and perhaps a bit of professional help. Certainly, I wish them well.

  • Asking not to be interrupted seems like such a reasonable request to me that I will confess I am starting out prejudiced against the husband in this case, and I know that’s not the right approach to take for problem solving. But it seems he is trying to psychoanalyze his wife. That is rarely a good way to deal with any disagreement in marriage. It doesn’t matter whether the analysis is right or wrong, telling someone that you know their thoughts better than they do is usually offensive. I think it’s generous of her to listen to him for as long as 20 minutes, especially since her sample complaint was that he interrupts her when she’s talking slowly. On the other hand, I wonder just how slowly she talks. It can be really painful to listen to someone who stretches it out and takes seemingly forever to finish a single sentence. Clearly, I am not going to solve this couple’s problem! I’m looking forward to seeing your third alternative.

  • I think she is asking him to be a therapist (listen, listen, listen) and he is being a therapist. What might change that dynamic? She could journal her thoughts and feelings and approach her husband when she has a better sense of what she means. I don’t have any big ideas for him, perhaps focus more on their relationship and accept that how he talks about her family has an impact on the intimacy he seeks. From my own marriage — I can imagine that such a move on her part would feel like a loss of intimacy. I remember when I stopped writing in my journal and started telling everything to the man who became my husband; it was so important. I don’t know how long they have been married, but I think how you create intimacy changes over time and needs to be updated/refreshed.
    What it happening doesn’t seem to create the intimacy either seeks. Maybe they are circling each other, wondering how to create more intimacy in their marriage; they’ve found some things that aren’t working, maybe some discussion of that question of what each other means by intimacy, what makes each other feel intimate, would shed some light on new ways to approach disagreements.

By Patty Newbold

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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