Big or small, it turns out that most (about 70%!) of the stuff couples fight about they’ll never ever solve, because despite how hard it can get, these problems don’t actually contain any problems. Weird, huh? In reality couples are instead faced with dilemmas created by differences in core values. Core values are those ideals we hold dear that make us who we are. They are based on our hard-won wisdom and experience. And core values just don’t change much, even when two people love each other. Mia and Hugh may be a scorching great couple in so many ways, and they’ll never agree about a lot of things like money, or sex, or spirituality, or politics, or a thousand other bits of life.
Perpetual Problems & Core Values: The Battle Between Us
Dilemmas cannot be solved. Mia wants the cabin, and Hugh will always want to grow the retirement fund. They don't choose to want these things. Have you noticed how you haven't ever chosen what you want or how you feel, you just want or feel it it? No matter what the Mia-Hughs end up doing with the money, their points of view won’t change. Their beliefs about the best use of money come from their core values. So the dilemma will never ever be solved, and can only be resolved by recognizing something greater than just Hugh’s retirement account versus Mia’s vacation cabin. Only when we take a nonjudgmental stance (a DBT skill!) and recognize how my position and your position both make sense given who we are and where we come from, only then we can resolve our dilemmas, and only then can we come up with something that honors each side. It's like what we first need is to be understood and accepted as we are. When we feel understood and accepted, we can more easily make room for the other guy's point of view. Then we can proceed, with no need for fighting, because in the spirit of acceptance we can see and honor each other’s values, even though our differences remain.
The Deep Stuff Under the Surface
In the case of Mia and Hugh, it isn’t the money that really matters. The money is only a symbol of something deeper: for Hugh a need for security, and for Mia a need for joy in the present moment. If he can just hear the dream beneath the money, how she grew up poor and always had to sacrifice, always felt starved for comfort, he can see why that cabin is so important to her. And if she can really see how his need to save money comes out of watching his father struggle as he aged, having to work hard into his eighties despite failing health just to make ends meet, she can't (and doesn't even want to) argue against that deep pain and sadness. And now somehow they each want the other to get that deep need met. Sure she wants the cabin, but she can't just disregard him and grab it. Of course he worries about their future, but he loves her, and ignoring her broken heart and forcing her into yet another sacrifice would break his own heart.
So they come together and try again.
Hugh: Let's just do the cabin. It's okay.
Mia: No, we can't do that. I couldn't enjoy it if I knew you were upset about it. Let's just save the money. We'll build our cabin next time we win the lottery.
Hugh: Come on, Mia. Lightning doesn't strike twice.
Mia: Yeah, but maybe if we save for it. You know, if we're careful.
Hugh: And make you scrimp more? No way. You've had
enough of that.
Neither of them has given up their positions, though they aren't fighting anymore. So that's good.
They still haven't figured it out yet. Now they're just locked up on opposite sides. This time they are each denying themselves instead of the other. They still have no resolution. They are each still ignoring half of reality. So that doesn't work. It's not that they couldn't just spend the money on the cabin, or sock it away in the savings account, but if they did they'd be sacrificing themselves. While there may be something noble in it all, it just doesn't work. Have you ever noticed how self-denial leads to frustration, bitterness, and depression?
So they should compromise, right? Everyone loves compromise. They say good relationships are full
of compromises. I suppose on the one hand there's some truth to that. So maybe Mia and Hugh pull a King Herod. They compromise and split the money in half, right down the middle, 50/50. That's fair, right? She gets $50,000 for her cabin, and he gets $50,000 to invest in retirement.
Each gets a lot of money. But maybe she can't build what she wants for that kind of money. She wonders how to stretch the dough out, if it's even possible. Will she be stuck with some place she doesn't ever want to visit because all the cut corners remind her of being poor? Her dream was not to build a shack. But Hugh's been so kind about it all, so she should just try to make due.
Inside she's scared of being disappointed, and worried about what he would think of her if she were. And even though he doesn't want to be, Hugh is still nervous about the money she's spending. He knows how it all works. Building costs always overrun their budgets. Of course he wants to be supportive.
Of course he wants to be considerate. He could just give her some of his half when the inevitable happens, and he probably would. On the outside, to her, he looks fine. But inside, hidden from her because he doesn't want her to feel bad, inside his fear grows. He becomes vulnerable to resentment.
This is the problem with compromise.
Something always gets left behind. They
focus on some arbitrary definition of fairness
that often has nothing to do with reality.
Plus compromise lacks creativity. It has no style.