Tony and I are quickly on our way to being a family of five with three kids under four years old. That last sentence might produce a mild heart attack for most people, but I have decided to focus all of my stress on just one factor instead of the many ways things are about to change… What are we going to drive?
Right now, our family car is our beloved Subaru Outback. It’s paid off – YIPPEE! – so we’ll keep it, but we need to trade in Tony’s Ford Bronco that we’ve had since before we got married for a larger, family-friendlier vehicle in which we can fit three car seats plus a massive stroller and all of the usual gear that goes along with toting kids. We are asking ourselves the same question many modern American families have asked themselves: Shall we, or shall we not, succumb to the minivan?
Tony says, “We shall not!”
I’m saying, “We shall!”
We haven’t made a move yet, so right now, we are at a bit of an impasse. The truth is, both of us are a lot closer to a middle than we are at complete odds. But still, it feels tense not to have made a decision and to be just a couple of weeks away from Baby #3’s arrival.
What do you do when you can’t make a decision?
I know we aren’t the first couple to not see eye-to-eye on what feels like such a big decision. A friend of mine recently emailed me asking if we had any resources for couples who couldn’t agree on when to start a family. The decision to have, or not to have, or when to have children is, by comparison, a much bigger decision than my first-world-problem. I don’t really have an answer for her. I have other friends who are stuck in gridlocked limbo over whether to have the husband’s elderly mother come and live with them or to take on the expense of moving her into an assisted living facility. Again, seems like a pretty big decision to disagree about. This is all grown-up stuff… the stuff I can’t believe we have to decide on our own… the stuff I feel too immature and ill-equipped to deal with. But, feeling like a kid doesn’t let me off the hook. Conversations must be had, decisions must be made, gridlock must be faced.
As I think about some of these big decisions, it feels like whoever is holding the “no” or “not yet” card seems to have the power. This can make the person holding the “yes” or “let’s do this” card feel disregarded and overlooked. Those feelings alone can make coming to agreement even more difficult than the actual issue. The thing about not coming to agreement on some of these bigger life issues is that it often means one person or the other has deeper dreams or longings that they feel are not being acknowledged. These are not “don’t fight over the butter” issues. They are deeply rooted heart issues and they need to be unearthed and paid attention to, not ignored and dismissed.
Dr. John Gottman says, in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work…
“The very nature of gridlock means that your dream and your spouse’s appear to be in opposition, so you’ve both become deeply entrenched in your positions and fear accepting each other’s influence and yielding.”
Is that where you are? Are you afraid to accept your partner’s influence? Do you think it will mean giving up entirely on something that is important to you, giving in when you really don’t want to? Are you digging in your heels because you are afraid that letting them have “their way” will cost you something greater than you are willing to pay? I get it. If you’re not ready to have kids yet, then you’re just not ready. If you don’t want your mother-in-law to come and live with you, compromising on that can make it so that you never want to spend time in your own home. You are holding on to your position for a reason, and it’s probably not a petty one.
What if it’s not about my way OR your way. What if there is a better way? Gary Chapman says, “In marriage it is never ‘having my way.’ It is rather discovering ‘our’ way.” Making this discovery won’t necessarily come easily. We all tend to assume that our ideas are the best ideas. What we fail to recognize is that our spouse has the same opinion of their ideas. Since this is true, getting through the impasse will require at least one of you to try to see the issue from your spouse’s perspective.
We need to talk. Or, do we?
Typically when something is on my mind, I’ll approach Tony and say, “We need to talk.” Now, I am aware that those words do not elicit positive and excited feelings in him. Even though he loves me and doesn’t hate talking things through with me, there is something about that phrase that can make his shoulders tense and create an automatic defensiveness. It has the same effect when he says, “we need to talk,” to me. I automatically assume I’m in trouble and I’m about to hear about it. I know it’s not the best way to start a conversation, but I’ve never known of another way to communicate that something is important to me and I need some undivided attention about it. Until now…
In thinking about my own minivan impasse, and not wanting to have a fight with Tony about it, I read something I thought was so simple, but so helpful, I was embarrassed I’d never thought of it before. Instead of approaching him and saying, “We need to talk,” Gary Chapman recommends a slightly different approach: “I’d like a chance to listen to you.” Chapman says that setting a time for listening is based on the concept of showing genuine respect for the other individual, giving them full freedom to think their own thoughts, have their own opinions, and have their own reasons for these opinions. It is expressing understanding and affirming that their ideas make sense. It takes away the adversarial atmosphere in resolving conflicts and creates an atmosphere of friendship.
Beginning with the desire to listen to Tony sets my own heart on a course of trying to understand him. In this case, I’d say, “Tony, I’d like a chance to listen to you. It seems like you really don’t want a minivan, and I’d really like to hear your ideas and understand more about it.”
I can only imagine how much better that conversation can go than the one that starts with, “We need to talk.” Then, what if I really did listen to him? We’ve already discovered how much more valued people feel when their loved one takes the time to listen and helping Tony feel valued is always my goal. We are partners, even when we disagree, and I don’t want to be his adversary. Also, I imagine that if I really engage in listening to him and taking in his perspective, how much more inclined he’ll be to want to listen to my opinions, too. I don’t think we’ll come to complete agreement in one conversation, but I am also learning that complete agreement isn’t necessarily the goal.
About getting through these tough problems, Dr. John Gottman says, “The goal in ending gridlock is not to solve the problem, but rather to move from gridlock to dialogue…” Ignoring an issue or choosing apathy when you cannot agree will not bring you and your partner closer together. Instead, it’s important to understand that the root of these impossible decisions could be a dream or longing that your spouse feels is being overlooked. Gottman also says that, “In a happy marriage, neither spouse insists or attempts to manipulate the other into giving up their dream. They work it out as a team. They fully take into account each other’s wishes and desires.” Are you willing to do that? If so, we’ve made a short list of things to think about when you are facing these big disagreements.
Four Tips to Facing Impossible Decisions
1. Set a time to listen
Practice asking for a time to listen instead of saying, “We need to talk.” Then, really listen. Ask clarifying questions. Stop yourself from condescending remarks that only reveal that you believe your opinion is truly “better” than theirs.
2. Decide where you can be flexible
Again, because you both believe your perspective to be valid, decide what areas of the big decision you can be flexible with. Maybe it’s with the timing. Do you need to agree right now? Maybe you can be flexible in some other area. Be open with that.
3. Choose understanding over deciding
Often these decisions are so heavy that the solution is not going to come from just one conversation. Make understanding and honoring each other your goal. If the decision feels pressing, set a time to come together after you both have had some time to think about the other’s perspective to try to make a decision together.
4. Show gratitude
Whatever decision you come to, or if you don’t come to one at all, it is vital that both of you feel heard and acknowledged. Thank your spouse for entering into the gridlocked situation with you, for pushing through the tension, and for showing love and respect by acknowledging your differences in opinion.
I really have no idea what Tony and I will be driving when this new little one arrives. I can’t stand this feeling of being in limbo and not having a plan. Still, I love my husband and I know he is reasonable and wants nothing more than to take care of his family. I can trust that whatever we do, we will do it as a team. When you are making your own impossible decisions, remember to give your spouse the benefit of the doubt, to listen to where they may be coming from, practice being flexible and #staymarried.
P.S. I don’t know why this video hasn’t just shut the whole discussion down…
If you liked this post, you may also like to read Same Team and No Yelling… and 9 Other Rules for Fair Fighting. New to #staymarried? Welcome! Check out why we started this blog and my first entry to get a little background.
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