How Emotionally Healthy Couples Disagree

How do healthy couples do it? Do they just naturally agree on most things and therefore, it’s easy? Do they just agree to disagree and move on to keep the peace? Do they hide how they really feel because it’s just easier to agree with their partner? How do healthy couples disagree? 

Preferences vs. Stances  

Marriages don’t fall apart because partners have differences. All partners have differences between them because there are two unique people with their own unique preferences. Marriage entails a constant negotiation of each partner’s preferences. Often, marriages fall apart because couples try to navigate their differing preferences in unhealthy and unhelpful ways. Instead of negotiating differing preferences, couples can get into a stance. Stances are rigid. Stances are judgmental (“My perspective is right and your perspective is wrong.”).  Stances are very difficult for couples to navigate. Stances can lead to disconnection. 

Preferences, however, are expected to be different at times. Preferences are neither right or wrong, they are just a preferred way of doing things. You prefer a structured, routine day. Your spouse prefers a more relaxed approach. You prefer a more structured schedule with the kids. Your spouse prefers a more flexible schedule. You prefer to save money for a rainy day. Your spouse prefers to spend money making memories now. You prefer strict discipline with the kids. Your partner prefers a more tolerant approach. You prefer cuddling on the couch. Your spouse prefers lounging in the recliner. Now, these preferences are bound to cause disagreements. Mishandled preferences become rigid, disconnected stances. 

I want to teach you about stances in the hopes that if you are in a disconnecting place in your relationship, you can find your way out. 

Let’s use an example. 

Julie loves a slower pace of life. She gets anxious when there is too much on her plate. She tries to keep her schedule and her family’s schedule not too busy—even though kids, jobs, extracurriculars and other commitments make this very hard to do. Julie’s husband, Nathan, thrives at a fast pace. He looks at the same busy calendar that makes Julie feel overwhelmed and instead, he feels excited.  

Julie and Nathan will have to navigate these wildly different preferences for pace for the entirety of their marriage. It will cause conflict time and time again. If they aren’t careful, their differing preferences (normal and healthy) can turn into a dividing stance. Once their preferences become a stance, navigating these issues becomes harder.  

Let’s look at the difference between a preference and a stance.  In her healthiest, best days, Julie manages her preference for a slower pace by encouraging her family to have rest and downtime. She proactively asks Nathan, ahead of time, for an unscheduled day each week so the family can relax, which Nathan is typically happy to accommodate. However, when life gets too busy, and Julie gets really overwhelmed and stressed, she gets into her “stance.” She stews on how he does “too much” and that it “isn’t healthy” and  “my way of doing life is so much better than his” and how “he gets to do whatever he wants when he participates in so many different things.” As Nathan leaves for an outing, she accuses him of “doing too much all the time” and “not considering me” and remarks on how “it must be nice to get to do whatever you want all the time.” As Nathan recalls how many times he has declined doing things to accommodate Julie’s request for a less busy schedule, you can probably imagine how this argument goes . . . spoiler . . . nowhere good. 

In his healthiest, best days, Nathan manages his preference for a fast pace by scheduling things well ahead of time, with Julie’s collaboration. He proactively runs things past Julie before adding on any commitments or making extra plans. He even reads blogs and books about how to say “no” to things so as not to overschedule his life. However, when things get a bit out of hand and busy and he gets accused of “doing whatever he wants” he gets into his stance. He recalls all of the times and inconveniences he has experienced when he supported Julie and her outings and activities and concludes “I support her and all of her activities but she doesn’t support me in mine.”  He accuses Julie of not being grateful for his history of supporting her and not being willing to give him the same support he gives her. You can probably guess how his accusations that she isn’t supportive go when she feels she has supported so much.  

In a nutshell, his stance is “you don’t support me the way I support you” and her stance is “you don’t care about my needs, you just think of yourself.” Imagine the conversations that occur from debating these stances. 

In a nutshell, his preference is “I like to do lots of things, it gives me energy and excitement” and her preference is “I like a lot of downtime, it refuels my energy and restores me.” Imagine the conversations that occur when negotiating these differing preferences.  

How do you know if you are in a stance? You are in a stance if:

  • You see your perspective as right and your partner’s perspective as wrong.
  • You have trouble seeing it any other way than your way.
  • Your communication consists of convincing your partner of your perspective. 
  • You aren’t curious or interested in their perspective. 
  • The only outcome you are interested in is your partner seeing it the way you do.
  • You think your perspective is superior to your partner’s.

How to get out of a stance:

  • Recognize it as a stance and acknowledge it as unhealthy and unproductive. 
  • Acknowledge that differing perspectives can be equally valid.
  • Decide to be curious about your partner’s perspective.
  • Stay curious until you completely understand why your partner sees it the way they do.
  • Express the validity of their perspective, even though it differs from yours.
  • Empathize with their perspective (“I can understand why you are such a saver, especially since you watched your parents lose their life savings when you were a kid” or “I can understand why you value spending money on making memories because your mother died when you were young, and you know more than most how important it is to live in the moment.”).

Julie got out of her stance when she decided to get curious. Through her curiosity, she was able to understand Nathan’s experience—that he has supported all of her endeavours, even when it put hardship on him. She was able to empathize with him that it would feel disheartening to not feel the same level of support from her. Through his curiosity, Nathan was able to understand that at certain busy times, Julie hits a breaking point. He empathized with her overwhelming experience. When Nathan and Julie connected in empathy, they figured out something else too. They figured out that Julie often said yes to many of Nathan’s prearranged plans because she knows how happy those things make him (she has a deep understanding of his preference for a faster pace) but that sometimes she overcommits in an effort to make him happy, and then hits a breaking point.  He was able to see that what looked like a lack of support in a given moment was often Julie hitting a breaking point because she had tried to support so much.  

Even after this conversation, Julie and Nathan will continue to negotiate their differing preferences a million times over in their relationship. But if they stay out of their stances, their differing preferences won’t divide them. In fact, it will help them understand each other even better. And that’s how healthy couples do it.

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