Most couples engaged to be married, at least those with the long view, have discussed, by the time they are wed, those critical issues and dreams that to them are immutable and not up for negotiation and have either compromised or agreed as to how they should be managed. Typically, each spouse comes into the marriage understanding there will be compromises to one’s personal understanding of what they want out of life, their likes and dislikes. The wedded couple usually has a view of what the common good should be for the marriage. At least I think that’s still the case for most marriages.
In other words, she may decide it’s important to marry a man who is of the same faith, or has the same vision for making a family, or even to have children, or not, or what faith the children should be raised in (to which I’ve related). Or his dream may be to one day own his own business and all that come with it.
Dreams are hopes, wishes, and aspirations that are part of your identity and give purpose and meaning to your life. They work on different levels, some being mundane and easily compromised. But some are profound and born from family and childhood experiences or education. And those that are profound we find to be non-negotiable. They are the ones, especially if they are hidden or not respected by one's spouse, that crowd out the love and joy in a relationship, and cause the most grief in marriages, some to the point, if they are not managed properly, of causing divorce.
And in the current cultural environment in which there’s an attempt to redefine marriage as simply that of an emotional union, instead of the comprehensive union with respect to permanence, exclusivity, reproduction and child rearing, it is not difficult to prognosticate that those prevailing issues in a marriage that typically cause gridlock will be seen in the future, not as a challenge to be embraced for the survival of the union, but one which would be viewed as an affront to one’s individualism, or a disruption of one’s emotional state, and therefore not worthy of one’s vigorous attention, dialogue, and invested energy.
Last year I learned of an engaged couple who represent, not typically, but something similar to the issue of marital gridlock. A young man came in for treatment for a chronic sinus congestion that he was certain was the result of an allergy. He had never had allergy symptoms his entire life but his reasoning was sound because he was engaged to be married to his fiancée who happened to have a pet cat, owned long before she met him and to whom she was quite endeared, and to which, unfortunately, he happened to have an allergy.
Since the first principle in treating an allergy is the avoidance of the offending allergen, I suggested this solution to him knowing full well, for obvious reasons, it was not a realistic one since obviously the advanced stage of their romantic relationship had surpassed the question of what the cat’s future held for this couple, he the potential groom knowing full well the cat was not going anywhere and would be staying with ‘Honey,’. I could only imagine her saying to him, “It’s either going to be the three of us, or me and the cat.” It seems there might be a funny joke laced somewhere in this story but I’m not about to go anywhere near it. Anyway, since the potential husband was going to be in for the duration, I suggested he consider allergy desensitization therapy after testing, but he deferred and instead opted for symptomatic treatment.
But more to the point, this couple represents, more or less, the living epitome of the potential that core issues can present to couples who find themselves struggling with or challenged by them; they test the strength of their relationship, and often are the cause of its demise. In the instance of this groom-to-be, he subordinated his cat-allergy to his love and hope for a long and happy relationship with someone to whom he saw many more redeeming and enriching values that he, himself, shared and thought very worthily of to the point of putting up with a cat allergy. Some might think he was crazy. If he hadn’t sounded so coherent I might’ve given him a mental status exam.
At any rate, not everyone is able to subordinate their non-negotiable issues for the sake of the marital union, especially if they are learned after the wedding day. Dr. John Gottman, a renowned researcher of short and long marriages, studied this particular question as to why some couples continue in long marriages in spite of gridlocked issues, while others succumb to them and allow them to dissolve the marriage at the expense of the many other values a couple may share and be enriched by. He writes in detail about this in his book, The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work, which is the culmination of thirty years of research.
I will summarize his recommendations, based on his research, but admittedly it will not do justice to the process and so I encourage you to read his book, which also contains practical engaging exercises, on this and other marital issues if there is an issue gridlocking your marriage. Perhaps do it in a hurry.
But managing this seemingly intractable issue of gridlock depends on how successful the couple is in changing the gridlock into dialogue. The overall view and goal should be one of not so much attempting to win one’s spouse over to their side, or to solve the problem, as much as it is in declawing the potential for the issue to cause pain and hurt -- by engaging in discovery and dialogue.
Dr. Gottman recommends five steps in the discovery and dialogue approach.
The first is to become a dream detective. To recognize the hidden, buried issue that has the potential to cause damage. There’s an excellent exercise in Dr. Gottman’s book that objectifies others’ gridlocked issues that ‘trains’ one to have an eye for identifying the hidden issue in one’s own marriage, without focusing yet on one’s own marriage. Space restricts laying it out here, but the exercise helps to open one’s eyes.
The second is to work on a gridlocked issue, meaning that having learned to identify your own gridlock issue, to now write it down, to write your own story about it, and explain it. The aim here is to not criticize, blame, or bad-mouth, but only to write the story that explains it, explains where it comes from, and why it is meaningful to you. Then after both write their respective dreams, to then take turns talking about it, each to the other, and each taking turns to listen, perhaps for a full fifteen minutes. Do not interrupt and do not try to solve the issue, but rather share to understand why each feels so strongly about the issue.
The third step is to take a break from the process and to soothe each other. He gives specific suggestions that have worked for other couples. But I’m sure the gentle reader, be a he or she, is not lacking for a plethora of suggestions on how they might best be soothed, if you know what I mean.
The fourth is to end the gridlock and begin to make peace, accepting the differences, and establish an initial compromise that will allow you to continue discussing the issue without hurt. In other words, declaw the issue.
As the final step in declawing this issue, he recommends you recreate the spirit of thanksgiving, counting your blessings, and expressing gratitude about what you appreciate about your spouse. Name three things you truly appreciate and are thankful for in your spouse.
The main thing with this process is to communicate and dialogue. The more attention you give any problem the more likely and quicker a solution is found.
Dr. Gottman’s 5-step approach is, in my opinion, a structured strategy, which if exercised accordingly will bring proven results. It indeed works. But I think some couples might be intimidated by the process with the time and energy required in such a focused approach. A pragmatic option might be to take one step at a time and focus on doing it well and thoroughly but with a view towards seeing the process through its entirety which will require patience and perseverance. Remember the object here is not to solve the gridlock, but rather to remove the pain, the hurt from it – to declaw it, as you would, for example, a cat. Speaking of which …
As for the ‘Cat Man’ I mentioned above, I would venture to say his young bride will indeed be marrying a man who I would think, much more likely than not, would be willing to go beyond the expected sacrifice of one’s time and talents, in the interests of his Love, and towards that one guiding and sustaining principle that undergirds all successful, happy, and long marriages – the total giving of one’s self to the other. For, on the lighter side, in venturing to think out loud on behalf of the guys reading this, if this young man is gallantly able to subordinate the physical discomfort of the immune response he experiences with his fiancée’s pet cat, then he, himself, certainly deserves to be well-comforted in his long and happy married life – and I will add, at the risk of inviting certain howls, "if you know what I mean.”