When You and Your Spouse Can't Agree

Photo Illustration of a couple in disagreement
Mike Heath

It was 2008 when my husband, Paul, and I went to Uganda for our first mission trip. I was energized in a way that I hadn't experienced in years, loving everything about the rural village that served as our base of operations. As I walked the lush footpaths with the laughing children, I felt God's presence in a profound way. I was so moved by the experience that as we gathered with the villagers on the last day of our trip, I publicly promised that we would be returning the following year — and every year thereafter.

Unfortunately, Paul's experience was vastly different from mine. As a family physician, he had been asked to serve in a one-room roadside "clinic" with no other doctors, no electricity, no running water and no medical supplies other than what he had brought in his suitcase. What he did have in abundance was an endless number of patients — many of whom had walked for miles to seek help — with long lists of symptoms and serious medical problems. Paul would work late into the night using a flashlight and then get up the next day and do it again. He felt like he was confronting a forest fire with a squirt gun.

My husband likes infrastructure, supplies, order and predictability. I am an aging hippie who never met an adventure she didn't like. Let's just say that Paul didn't appreciate that I committed us to returning to Uganda for the next several years. Indeed, he was pretty upset with me (and rightfully so).

When Paul and I got home and were finally able to unpack what had happened on the trip, it became clear that we had both a solvable problem and what felt like an unsolvable problem.

The solvable problem was straightforward because I had clearly violated a basic ground rule in our marriage by making such a major decision without talking it over with him first. I offered my profound apology and was forgiven, and that was that.

The other problem was far more complex. I had fallen head over heels in love with Uganda and couldn't wait to return. Paul had spent two of the most miserable weeks of his life feeling ineffectual and frustrated. He had a less-than-zero desire to return to Uganda. We both had strong feelings about our positions. What on earth were we going to do? For 33 years, we had run our marriage on the conviction that there would always be a win-win solution to a disagreement if we worked hard enough to find it. But here we were in a situation where each of us felt equally passionate about our need to return, or not return, to Uganda.

The reality of perpetual disagreements in marriage

In my practice as a marriage and family therapist, I have encountered many couples with disagreements, both trivial and profound, that they simply could not resolve. Examples of their conflicts include:

  • He feels that their children should be home-schooled, but she embraces public education.
  • She wants to spend every Thanksgiving with her extended family, but he finds their conversations loud and boring.
  • If some unexpected money comes their way, he wants to spend it, while she wants to save it.
  • She likes music in church played by a worship band, but he wants to sing from a hymnal, accompanied by a pipe organ.

Dr. John Gottman, a well-respected researcher on the dynamics of marriage, has estimated that nearly 70 percent of all marital conflicts are what he calls "perpetual" and essentially unresolvable. Why is that? Because the two individuals who pledged to become one are actually different people with different temperaments, family backgrounds, life experiences, opinions, likes and dislikes. As a result, when you marry, you are choosing a particular set of perpetual disagreements with your spouse. If you had married someone else, you would have chosen a different set of perpetual disagreements. Unresolvable conflicts are inherent in all relationships, so if a husband and wife appear to agree on everything, it is likely that one has dominated the other to the point that he or she is afraid to speak up (or has forgotten how).

The bad news about perpetual disagreements

If perpetual disagreements are not handled well, they can turn into marriage-killing deadlocks that resurface on a regular basis, causing more emotional distancing with each return. Here's what the cycle tends to look like:

Couples have the same argument repeatedly — with no resolution. The words exchanged follow a well-worn track driven by personalities and previous patterns of arguing. More time and energy are spent attacking each other than actually exploring the issue.

There is no capacity for empathy or affection while discussing the issue. Rather than making progress toward a possible solution, husband and wife are pushed further apart emotionally.

The argument stumbles to an end, either because there's no more time, one person concedes, or a door slams and someone opts for retreat. In any case, the issue is left unresolved and spouses feel unfairly treated and misunderstood.

Compromise now seems out of the question because couples feel like they have to give up something important or abandon a core value. The argument has gone too far for either husband or wife to give in while retaining any self-respect.

This cycle eventually creates injuries that eclipse the original subject of the argument. After a while, only the pain of the wounding — feeling unloved and unheard by the other person — is remembered.

The good news about perpetual disagreements

But perpetual disagreements don't have to derail your marriage. Most unsolvable problems won't harm your relationship if you and your spouse have an adequate set of communication skills and follow a few basic principles. Consider the following:

Remember that the vast majority of marital disagreements involve differences of opinion rather than do-or-die moral issues. It is quite all right to agree to disagree on these.

Don't try to argue your spouse into changing how he or she feels. If your wife likes the color green, there is nothing to be gained by trying to convince her that blue is better. If your husband hates opera, you'll probably never get him to appreciate it. What you can do, however, is encourage some thoughtful conversations in which you unpack your own feelings about an issue on which the two of you disagree. This might lead to a shift in your spouse's opinion, but more importantly, these conversations are the stuff of which real intimacy is made.

Listen and acknowledge each other's viewpoint — it's far more important than winning the argument. You can each have passionate opinions regarding something you disagree about, but you'll need to express them in a way that your spouse feels heard, respected and even admired. This form of communication requires that you listen to the other person's ideas, ask questions, clarify what you don't understand, avoid interrupting and banish snarky comments from your conversation.

Seek to understand what the disagreement with your spouse is really about. Active listening has a way of uncovering the history and emotions that may be impacting your spouse's viewpoint — and yours. Nearly every important perpetual disagreement has at least one underlying theme: security versus risk, order versus clutter, strict versus permissive parenting, saving versus spending, how one family did things versus how the other did them, etc. Doing the work to unearth these themes can profoundly impact the health of your marriage.

Commit to praying both as individuals and as a couple. Dealing with perpetual conflict often requires wisdom and tact beyond our limited human capabilities. Submitting these issues to God in prayer is the beginning of wisdom and the foundation of marital harmony.

Look for creative ways to find a compromise and honor your spouse's position. For example, you could take the type of vacation one person likes one year and then switch for the next year. You could spend Christmas with one set of relatives this year and the other set next year. If one of you is messy and the other is easily agitated by disorder, both of you could demonstrate love, honor and generosity by moving in the other's direction.

Speaking of compromise, it played a major role in the way Paul and I ultimately dealt with the issue of returning to Uganda. After a number of conversations in which we acknowledged and validated the other's feelings about the trip, Paul was willing to consider going again if he would not be obligated to see patients in the clinic. We came up with another project that we could do together: teaching marriage conferences with a goal of helping to stabilize families. Paul prayed about this and received clear confirmation from God regarding our ministry in Uganda. So we returned — together — and thus began several great adventures.

Teri Reisser is a marriage and family therapist and the co-author of Your Spouse Isn't the Person You Married.
This article first appeared in the October/November 2016 issue of Focus on the Family magazine and was originally titled "Wedlock Deadlock." If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family's marriage and parenting magazine. Get this publication delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.
© 2016 by Teri Reisser. Used by permission.

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