- One of us likes pizza with thin, crispy crust; the other prefers the deep-dish variety.
- One of us enjoys country music; the other would rather listen to blues and jazz.
- We do not fold towels the same way.
- One person wants to turn the temperature up; the other wants to turn it down.
- Someone recorded all the episodes of a certain TV show; the other is not going to watch them.
- We don't have the same way of washing dishes, or loading a dishwasher.
- One of us would like to take a cruise; the other gets seasick.
- Someone in this house does not like pumpkin pie; someone else loves it. Ditto guacamole.
- We don't always agree on what is or isn't recylcable.
- Sometimes the toilet paper is hung in the wrong position.
- And so on.
Knowing all this, many people might expect us to argue a lot. Don't all these differences lead to resentment, bickering, and attempts to cajole or manipulate each other into compliance?
I just can't imagine fighting with my husband over whether socks should be tucked into each other or folded. Neither of us has ever tried to force the other to get a different haircut, nor have we debated how to organize the refrigerator, the best way to tie shoes, or which way to squeeze toothpaste.
I'm not going to claim that, in 29 years of marriage, we've never had a spirited disagreement. But these have been rare, and never about anything on that list, or anything like it.
When friends and acquaintances are surprised by how well we get along, I have always explained it simply:
"We agree about the big things, the small things aren't worth fighting over, and everything in between can be negotiated."
It really is that simple.
Simple, but not easy.
First, you have to identify the big issues, talk about them, and come to a series of agreements. This process should begin before you get married, and it will continue throughout the first two or three years (sometimes longer). The big issues generally include matters such as money management, everything having to do with children, relationships with in-laws, outside friendships, religion, career choices, where to live, how the housekeeping will get done, and major lifestyle choices.
You can't simply assume that your partner shares all your values or has the same expectations that you do. You will need to reveal and examine your most basic assumptions. You may need to talk about things that make you uncomfortable. Now and then some change in circumstances will bring up a new issue or require the re-evaluation of an old one.
Second, you need to let go of any attachment you have to trivialities. You need to give up the desire to control all the details. Recognize that it truly does not matter how the towels are folded. The location of the drinking glasses in the cupboard will not ruin your life. Your partner's choice of parking spots is not a reflection on anyone's character. Whether you vacuum first and dust later or dust first and vacuum later is not a moral issue. Let it go.
When the big issues are taken care of, you will experience the confidence that comes from having a stable foundation for your relationship and knowing that your basic values are not being violated.
When the little things have been dismissed, your relationship will not be weakened by ongoing irritation and its eventual result, contempt. In a secure, trusting, and peaceful relationship, the partners are much more likely to find mutually satisfactory ways to solve problems. They experience themselves as a team, working together, rather than as opponents.
With the big things and the little things out of the way, whatever is left becomes much more manageable. When we aren't on guard against betrayal, and we aren't exhausted and annoyed from constantly debating petty details, we can approach decision making calmly.
Even if we start with different ideas, some of those decisions are actually fun. Where to go on vacation? Which car to buy? Even when the issues are more serious, such as handling a financial problem or caring for an aging parent, we know we can choose a course of action together. Instead of taking a "my way or the highway" attitude, we talk about the options, weigh the pros and cons, and discuss possible outcomes. With this approach, we nearly always come to an agreement.
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