My husband and I are redecorating our bedroom. We're in the messiness of choosing a paint color. He likes muted and neutral colors. I like bright and clear colors. Talk about worlds colliding! It's almost enough to wish we hadn't started the whole project in the first place! And this is not the first time we've had this discussion. As you can well imagine, over the years decorating our house, choosing a car color, picking out clothes as gifts for each other, has been an interesting and bumpy process.
It's like we're going around in circles. My husband is not going to all of a sudden like blue, purples and lilac. I'm not all of a sudden going to like rust, beige, and mustard. What we do agree on is that we both want to like our room and that the room feel restful, spacious, comfortable, and plush - a room that supports us as a couple. And we've learned from past experience that, if not managed, conflicts like this can result in gridlock, recriminations, hurt feelings, frustration and overwhelm. Not a good place for a marriage to be for any length of time. And certainly where we don't want to be.
What we're in the midst of what John Gottman calls a Perpetual Problem. These are the conflicts that rise up again and again in a relationship. According to Gottman's research, 69% of a couple's arguments fall into this category. These are non-solvable problems. In other words, most couples' problems will never be solved. Now before you get all depressed about this statistic, there is hope. Although perpetual problems can't be solved, they can be managed.
Effective conflict management is important to a relationship. Successful couples and business partners have learned how to manage their perpetual problems -- they've learned to cope with them effectively. Partners use many different ways to manage these. For some partners, these can be mitigated by a clear division of roles. These roles can be designed along traditional roles, or not! It's completely up to them. All relationships have roles; just some of them are more obvious than others.
A partnership gets to design how they want their relationship to work. They may decide that one partner gets to choose what the inside of the house looks like, the other gets to choose how the outside looks. And of course, caring partnerships are aware of the impact of their decision on the other and willing to amend their personal choice into something that works well for both of them. This is one way to manage the conflict, as long as the other partner doesn't really care that much about the decision. But what if this type of arrangement doesn't work for them?
Increasing relationship skills is also important to a relationship. For those partnerships that have chosen to co-manage their decisions, increased relationship skills come into play. Perhaps they use their shared sense of humor to de-escalate the conflict. Or rely on their abilities to step back and see things from a larger perspective. Or they remind each other of their shared respect and affection for each other, despite whatever turbulence has been stirred up. Whatever they do, they've learned to use what works for them to navigate through the rough spots together.
So, how clear are the roles in your relationship? Do you know what they are? How discussed and agreed upon are the roles, or have the two of you been holding assumptions about who has what role? Are your assumptions in alignment with each other? How many roles are shared? How are your role arrangements working for the two of you? Take some time to discuss with your partner, in a being-curious, non-judgmental way, of course!
And, how effective are the two of you managing conflict? Do you go to a place of blame, judgment, attacking, defending, criticism, acquiescence, or tuning out? A stable relationship can handle a little of this - it's a natural part of being human, after all. And a vibrant relationship will move on from this place. How well do you pace yourselves, using well-placed humor to lighten the emotional atmosphere, and being aware of timing for starting the conversation? How much do you acknowledging each other, being willing to come to a compromise that values both of you, and being tolerant of each others' faults? Because, here's the thing, you not only get to choose your roles, you get to choose how you are with each other during conflict.
And here's my wish for you. I want your partnership to have clarity and alignment around roles, and that the two of you truly appreciate how much each of you contributes to your relationship in these roles. I encourage you to acknowledge what you each contribute to the relationship. And over time, pay attention to your conflict management skills. If it's an effective process -- Great! Congratulations! If not, call me; that's what I'm here for. You'll be glad you did - and those around you will be too! Partnerships that manage conflict well do a service for those around them - they show that vibrant and successful partnerships are possible - and they show that there is a way to make this a reality.