“They have such a good marriage. They never argue.” Is the absence of conflict in a marriage really a good sign? Perhaps, in some cases, a couple has virtually resolved all their conflicts through mutual compromise and cooperation, and has perfected the art of negotiation so that arguments never happen. The more likely explanation is that one spouse is giving in more than their fair share. Many times couples find themselves in complementary roles so that, in any given situation, one partner “over-functions” while the other partner “under-functions”. This is all well and good when one partner does more of the housework but the other does more of the childcare or managing the family business, so that in the end responsibilities are divided relatively equally.
When it comes to making decisions, whether about money, children, sex, or household chores, what happens when one partner’s preference is nearly always the final outcome? One partner is in a peacekeeping role, continually giving in to the other’s desires, sometimes without either partner realizing it. The couple may appear to have the ideal relationship, because they seem to agree on everything. In reality, when one partner continually gives in to keep the peace, the cost may be higher than they realize. Peacekeeping behavior can become a habit so neither partner is aware of how often it happens.
The peacekeeping pattern slowly builds in a relationship when one partner redefines their wishes upon hearing the other partner wants something different. For example, the wife wants to enjoy a lazy day on the beach, but when her husband expresses a desire to spend the day hiking or at the baseball stadium, she changes her mind to reflect her husband’s priorities. Or, a husband may constantly make excuses to friends who invite him places because he believes his wife expects him to stay home.
While it is necessary to defer to one’s partner at times, if one partner almost always defers to the other, serious problems can arise. The constant underlying stress of denying personal needs and preferences may lead to headaches, back and neck pain, gastric disturbance, anxiety, or depression. The couple, as well as the physician or psychiatrist, may think the problem resides in the person who is suffering when, in actuality, the problem is in the pattern that has developed between the couple.
Conflict in relationships is normal. There are ways to negotiate conflict so that both partners can enjoy life and develop individually. It begins by defining the issue by making “I” statements and describing what is happening rather than what the other is “doing.” The next step is to ask for what you need, or gently inform your partner what steps you will be taking to get your needs met. “I would like to go to the beach. We have different preferences today. You are welcome to go to the beach with me or to the baseball game, but I am planning to go to the beach.” It may be extremely uncomfortable at first, but gets easier with practice. You may save your health and your marriage. While conflict may be uncomfortable, addressing it head on will have better long term results than ignoring it.