Been there, done that, but keep doing it: These are the hallmarks of an argument involving an “enduring difference” between you and your spouse. Mary and Bill are typical; an “enduring difference” has, for some time, occupied a large space in their marriage of seven years.
Mary and Bill are both in their late 20s and have two children. They argue about doing household chores, managing her anger, his watching TV “all the time,” and his weekly going out drinking with “the boys.”
Before their first child was born, their life together was filled with work, family, friends, and a lot of partying. Mary has adapted to the changes children bring and resents the fact that Bill has not. They both have demanding jobs they must maintain to support their lifestyle. They limit shared family tasks to transporting children to daycare and school. Otherwise, Bill does “fix up” around the house, mows the lawn, and tinkers with the car. He is indifferent to household chores and childcare, not considering them as part of his role. He says he needs the TV and his “one night out a week” to relax.
Though stressed, Mary feels guilty about working and saddles herself with the major responsibility for the children, the housekeeping, and their relationship. Mary gets angry when she sees Bill watching TV when she is washing the dinner dishes or putting the children to bed. She resents his weekly Thursday night “appointment” with his childhood buddies, but limits her own outside contacts to phoning her friends.
She argues that he does not take responsibility for pulling his own weight with family and household matters so she, in effect, has a third child to care for. He views his work and career as his contribution to the family, while Mary’s work is played down as merely an interim measure to support their current lifestyle.
Mary resents Bill’s attitude so much that she can barely contain her anger in front of the children. Bill is angered by what he sees as her attempts to “control” him.
Enduring differences develop out of expectations learned from one’s family of origin (for example, gender roles) and longstanding character traits (for example, submissiveness). These differences may surface as seemingly harmless disputes about sleeping arrangements (who takes which side of the bed) or who does the shopping to more important disagreements regarding the control of finances or the disciplining of children. Denial of differences, codependency, and degree of openness in communication style often emerge as factors in enduring differences. Partners may also differ greatly in their comfort with confrontation, willingness to discuss relationship issues, and how decisions are made on family matters.
What Is To Be Done?
The complexity of enduring differences and the emotions they generate limit the usefulness of negotiation principles; differences should, nevertheless, first be subjected to a process of negotiation to test the degree to which they are entrenched.
Immediate differences are concrete, situation-specific, and do not persist as frustrating arguments. Immediate difference negotiation is idea-centered. Even as negotiation relies on effective listening, it centers on brainstorming techniques (rather than vulnerability) and carries with it the expectation that the difference is resolvable.