Sit and stay awhile...

Irreconcilable Differences in Marriage

Last week, a couple came into my office and the wife began complaining. “My husband treats me like dirt,” she cried (using another word.) “I had the worst day yesterday with the kids -- trying to do a million things -- so I leave the breakfast dishes in the sink, and he comes home and has the nerve to say, THIS KITCHEN IS A MESS.” As she described this problem, she looked over at him resentfully. He said, with an icy calm: “Well, it was a mess. I like to come home to a clean sink – it’s all I ask.” Then he looked at me and said, “Is that too much to ask?”

Before I could answer, his wife went into a rage. “Who do you think you are?” she hissed between clenched teeth. “Do you think you’re my boss? What right do you have to speak to me like that?” She looked at me then and said, her voice growing louder, “Do you believe this? How little respect and understanding I get? Can you get him to see how inconsiderate and selfish he is?”

Unfortunately, this husband was not willing to see how inconsiderate and selfish he was, and the wife was unable to get the dishes done before he came home, or to feel less angry with him when he complained about it. They had come to the place of irreconcilable difference. Irreconcilable differences are the most challenging problem to marriage, when each party struggles to get the other party to see things their way and it doesn’t work.

Irreconcilable differences can come up over small things and large; the placement of a dirty pair of socks can trigger conflict, as well as a huge decision about money or how to raise the kids.
Many couples storm and scream when irreconcilable differences come up, the better to be heard.  Others become remote and disconnected; their dream of being married to the “right” person irrevocably shattered. Irreconcilable differences usually breed more negative feelings: despair about the future, feeling unloved, neglected, worthless, abused, frustrated, demeaned, disrespected, uncared for, disregarded, controlled, abandoned… the list goes on and on and on.

The usual approaches to managing irreconcilable differences help a couple to reconcile. They help couples to become more objective and reasonable; to see each other more clearly and compassionately.  Read on to learn how this is commonly achieved. But sometimes irreconcilable differences can't be reconciled. That's when we need the un-reasonable approach. Stay tuned, as it will follow.

Typical Approaches to Reconciliation

For straight couples, objectivity and acceptance of each other is often acquired easily via a rational understanding of just exactly how much men are from Mars and women, from Venus. Men and women can often be convinced that the deep chasm of difference that lies between them may be gender-based. This understanding helps them to realize that their spouse may not intentionally be unwilling or unable to see things in a different way; it’s just the way they are made.

Couples can also come to a place of reconciliation when they can better understand their differences psychologically. In his case, the man needed to understand how agitated the wife could become, and the wife, to understand how much order her husband required.

Understanding each other’s feelings goes a long way towards a couples' ability to gain objectivity; to feel less defensive and to minimize the descent into further despair and hopelessness. The deeper the understanding, the better.  In this case, the husband couldn’t understand how his wife’s agitation came from living under a shroud of worthlessness. His complaints about the dishes not being washed made her feel so inept, but to him, she was a smart and educated woman. He thought her feelings of worthlessness were ridiculous.  If he could have accepted her feelings better, he wouldn't have had to feel so disregarded, unloved and neglected when she couldn’t didn’t get to the dishes.

The wife, in turn, could not understand how much her husband lived under a shroud of feeling unheeded and neglected. She couldn’t “feel” those feelings, because he seemed so angry all the time. She could only feel his frustrations. If she could have accepted his deeper feelings about what the dirty dishes meant, she could have become less defensive about not doing them, and found ways to reassure him.

The intensity of feeling created by irreconcilable differences is often a testament to how much a couple means to each other, and how much they need each other to feel whole. Once couples can understand each other’s underlying feelings, they can begin to appreciate just how important they are to each other; they can become more compassionate and get out of the vicious cycle of taking things personally and continuing to operate from their respective shrouds of unhappiness.

Without understanding, some couples still manage to reconcile by negotiating peace treaties.  Peace treaties are designed to help couples make it through irreconcilable differences by getting them to develop concrete strategies to avoid conflict, and helping each person commit to the strategy. For example, the wife may have to agree and commit to have the dishes done by an agreed-upon time, even if it’s midnight. In turn, the husband may agree that he will zip his lip about a dirty sink if it is not clean by the time he arrives home, or succumb to cleaning it himself. When couples are helped to work things out strategically, they can avoid some of the minefields that can create a blow-up. 

Despite this wealth of strategies to help couples to become more objective and to negotiate peace, it is not always possible for people to understand their own strong reactions or commit to change. Sometimes, couples get stuck blaming the other person for arousing intolerable feelings. They opt instead for fighting, in the continued hope that they will be heard.

This is not a bad thing; we should all continue to fight to be heard by someone as important as our spouse. In marriage, it is vital that each person stay true to their requirement for the other person to be a wonderful partner. To back down from wanting the right feelings and from expecting different behaviors from our spouse would be to lose faith in marriage and in the possibility for happiness. When couples beck down from their requirements, it often means the marriage is over. Before this happens, the un-reasonable approach can help.

The Un-Reasonable Approach
There is usually a good reason why so often, both people involved in an irreconcilable difference are unable to bend to the other. Especially when two people's painful feelings get aroused in each other at the same time, as with the couple in this chapter, reconciliation can become impossible. For this reason, the un-reasonable approach is not designed to bring the couple to a place of understanding and closeness, but rather, to a place of acceptance so that the marriage can be tolerated.

It doesn't make much sense, really, to expect that anyone should tolerate hurt and disappointment; we like to think of marriage as a loving partnership between two people cemented together by compassion, respect and understanding. Staying with someone who frustrates us so much is certainly, not reasonable. But sometimes, for reasons we can’t always understand, we don’t want to break up. At these times, we need help accepting the harsh realities: our requirements for what we want can’t always be met, and it is painful.

In the wife’s case, she had to be helped to accept how mean, critical, cold, demanding and unsupportive her husband could be. When she could fully come to terms with the fact that her husband could be rigid, demanding and selfish, it helped her to feel less defensive and crazed when he “started in” on her. In that dreaded moment when he came home grumpy, instead of cringing, waiting for the criticism and becoming hijacked by her defensiveness, she could just say to herself: “he is disgruntled, insensitive, hungry, and demanding after a hard day. He is an absolutely horrible, insensitive pig, sometimes. He can be a real idiot.” This made her feel a lot better.

In the husband's case, he had to come to accept how un-cooperative, unreliable, uncaring and angry his wife could become. Fully accepting how disappointing his wife could be helped him to feel less disregarded. In that dreaded moment when he came home to a house that felt out of control, he could just say to himself:  “I am not going to say anything about this terrible mess and let her have her turn at being selfish, neglectful, and self-involved.” This anger helped him feel less despairing about feeling disregarded.

For many couples, it really helps to come to terms with the fact that all of this frustration, disappointment, and anger are not necessarily signs that the marriage is hopelessly flawed. Instead, they are common dynamics that have to be negotiated.  In the end, real intimacy is about being able to contain not only all the good, but all the painful, disappointing and even enraging. As they say: in sickness and in health.

Couples, when a marriage is tolerable enough to stay intact, do have to decide which flaws and incompatibilities to tolerate in each other, and which are non-negotiable and require change. This process of negotiation requires fighting, strained feelings, alienation, suffering, thinking and talking. The un-reasonable approach appreciates the need for struggle in the process of becoming a good-enough union. This could mean adding to the old adage "in sickness and in health," also "and in love and in meanness-and-selfishness."

There is no standard of normalcy in a real, working marriage. There is only the standard of how much each person is able and willing to bend or tolerate the other; to take turns being unacceptable, and to struggle through understanding and negotiation. Watching this process of concession and demand in couple’s therapy, I realize this: we cannot always be reasonable, rational, sensible, compassionate, or flexible people. Sometimes, we can be fools. Here is the real question: can we still be loved?



return to listing