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Planning for a wedding and getting married is supposed to be one of the happiest times of your life, right? Yet somehow, for a lot of couples, deciding between tulips and peonies, or chocolate or vanilla cake, can turn into a fight — that seems to persist through every wedding-related decision.
What many people don’t realize, is that in relationships, what couples fight about is, often, not really what they are fighting about.
Take Becca and Will for example, a couple I've worked with as a licensed marriage and family therapist associate in Dallas. They struggle with arriving at conclusions on any decision. Every time Becca tries to involve Will in some part of the wedding planning process, the conversation ends up in a fired-up argument about their finances. Will feels that finances should be a top priority in their planning process, while Becca is fixated on creating an enjoyable experience.
So, is there no hope? Are they completely wrong for each other?
The Fight for Control
This scenario is simply one version of millions of interactions that couples have, all leading back to one underlying conflict: the fight for control. Engaged couples are at an even greater risk of not confronting this pattern appropriately because this conflict is often disguised as wedding-planning stress.
So what is the underlying fight for control really about, anyways? Simply put, it's about knowing if your partner will show up for you. It is about insecurity. Underneath those defense mechanism of control or anger are always more vulnerable emotions like sadness, insecurity, fear, anxiety, uncertainty and lack of trust.
Now, here’s the kicker: this is actually supposed to happen. Marriage is not about finding someone who holds the same thoughts, feelings, opinions, behaviors or tendencies as you. It is not about finding your “other half” who completes all of the missing parts of you.
What marriage is truly about is finding a person that you can make an honest commitment to; to love them and practice relating to them for better or worse, with all of your shortcomings and theirs, for all of the differences that you will have.
By committing to creating a shared life together, you will automatically experience friction, tension and resistance as you built your relationship.
So, if you are someone who is to be married soon, and you feel that you and your partner are struggling with repetitive conflict, I encourage you to consider the following thoughts. More often than not, you will find that what you and your partner are deeply seeking to know are the answers to questions of:
Am I really worth this much to you?
Can I really trust you? Do you trust me? How do we know?
Is it really safe for me to share my deepest thoughts and feelings with you?
If I do, what if you disagree?
One of the opportunities that premarital couples have is to begin identifying “their pattern” now, before it gets too far gone. All couples have their own way of fighting for control in their relationship. Through self-awareness and a heightened awareness of your relationship patterns, you can identify your part in the cycle and begin to respond in better, healthier ways.
Here are a few ways you and your partner can begin to do this:
1. Learn to listen.
It is amazing to watch a couple’s communication transform when they begin to learn and implement the skill of actively listening to their partner.
Active listening is the ability to tune into your partner, hear what they say and mirror (repeat or summarize) back to them what you heard them say.
This removes any responsibility or need for you to have to fix, react emotionally to or refute, what your partner shares. When you practice simply doing your part to mirror your partner back, the results may be shocking. This is because when you are listened to, it is extremely validating and affirming. You feel understood.
As the active listener, you may not understand or agree with whatever your partner is sharing. It’s often most difficult when what they are sharing about has to do with you. By implementing this skill, you remove the ability to fight for control and turn the situation into an opportunity to understand your partner’s experiences more deeply. And that is what marriage is truly about.
2. Don’t wait. Communicate.
Avoiding conflict will only prolong it. The longer you wait to address issues, the more they will fester and blow up in other areas of your relationship later, much messier and more fueled by resentment, frustration or anger.
It's the responsibility of each person to know when they are experiencing those previously mentioned emotions (the vulnerable ones that are usually avoided). It is the duty of each person to be accountable to themselves and the relationship and to bring these things up. Couples often get stuck in the trap of expecting their partner to “know when they are having a problem” or to “bring things up first."
Control is typically about winning. The ultimate goal of communication shouldn’t be about winning or being right, but about understanding, validating one another’s point of view and maintaining respect.
3. Recognize the difference between your thoughts and feelings.
If you feel called out, blamed or criticized by your partner, it is imperative that you take a few seconds to determine how you really need to respond. A common tendency will be to react, fight back and defend yourself. This tactic works fine in many relationships, but not so much in marriage.
Here’s the truth: feelings and thoughts are not the same thing.
Feelings are innate, primal and are strong indicators of what our personal needs are. But feelings do not need to run the show. Your arguments will go very differently if you acknowledge how you feel about the situation, but THINK about how you rationally need to respond.
Marriage is about taking the defenses down, and it’s a delicate balance. It is NOT allowing abusive words or behaviors, but it is putting your walls down enough to listen to what is coming at you and to try to understand it.
It is not about holding your tongue at all times, but about exploring your own emotions and discerning the best way, for your relationship, for you to respond.
By recognizing the natural risk you take by being in a relationship, you can find empowerment in being a team and working together to bring something positive out of your shortcomings and weaknesses. Marriage is the adventure of a lifetime, and with any adventure comes growth, exploration and a willingness to stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone and into a life of deeper meaning and shared experiences.
Liz Higgins is a Dallas-based couples counselor. For more information, visit her website.