It is unrealistic to think that you and your spouse will always find a solution or compromise that you both find acceptable. Sometimes that won't happen. But believe it or not, this doesn't have to create problems in your marriage. You don't need to have a consensus on everything. In fact, you can agree to disagree peacefully.
In order to agree to disagree and to have this agreement feel acceptable, usually both spouses must feel heard. You have to know what your spouse thinks and the way s/he does and vice versa. You really have to make an effort to acknowledge your spouse's point of view. You have to be respectful. You don't have to see eye-to-eye, but you have to tell your spouse that from his or her perspective, you can understand why s/he feels the way s/he does. One of the best ways to reach this sort of understanding is through active listening (Markman, Stanley, and Blumburg, 2001).
Although there are many different versions of this kind of communication exercise, I will share with you the version I teach at my seminars. You and your spouse can practice this together. Some people find it too structured; others have found it to be their communication salvation. I suggest that you try it and see how it feels to you. This is how it goes:
Rule One: Discussions should take place only when both partners feel ready. If one person isn't prepared to talk, s/he must suggest another time in the near future.
Rule Two: One person has the floor at a time. It is important to begin the discussion on a positive note. Person A speaks for no more than two or three sentences.
Rule Three: Person B is the designated listener. It is the listener's task to make sure the speaker feels understood. The listener should repeat what s/he has heard to confirm it is what the speaker intended. Person B is not to comment or react, just paraphrase Person A's comments back to him or her. Person A then lets Person B know whether what s/he said is accurate. If so, Person A can make additional points. If not, Person A repeats the point to help Person B really hear what is being said. The speaker-listener interaction continues until the Person A's point is made. Then the speaker should ask the listener for feedback.
Rule Four: Person B now has the floor, and Person A becomes the designated listener. Partners can switch roles as often as is necessary to clarify points and feelings.
Here is an example of this exercise in motion:
Loveleene: I have been thinking. When you come home at night you often spend time on your computer. I miss having evening time with you. I know you are very busy at work, but I wish you could skip your lunch now and then and get your work done at work so that when you come home, you're more available to me.
Craige: You're saying that you think I should be more efficient at work and get all of my work done before I get home, right?
Loveleene: That's part of what I'm saying, but it's not the whole thing. I'm telling you that I miss you. We used to spend some time together in the evenings, and I very much enjoyed that. I want to feel that our relationship is a bigger priority to you.
Craige: Okay, it's not just that you want me to finish my work over my lunch hour. The important message I'm getting here is that you feel as if you're not important to me. You miss spending time with me. You'd like it if I would plan better so that our relationship is a higher priority.
Loveleene: That's exactly right. That's what I'm saying. How do you respond to that?
As simple as that seems on the surface, I'm here to tell you that when you and your spouse give this a shot, you'll be surprised at how difficult this exercise really is. That's because when we have conversations with our spouses, rather than truly listen to what they're saying, much of the time we're preparing ourselves mentally for what we're going to say next. We're defending, disagreeing, and critiquing. It takes real skill just to listen and not react.
In the example, Craige thought Loveleene was criticizing his time management skills, and he wasn't able to hear Loveleene's longing for him. But because he was willing to continue with the exercise, Loveleene made sure he heard the whole message.
When couples practice this skill, they often have great difficulty at first. They want to stop their spouses and say, "Hey! You were wrong about that," or "I can't believe you see it that way!" or "If I just repeat back what you're saying you'll think I'm agreeing with you when nothing could be further from the truth." However, when they force themselves to quiet their minds and listen and reflect back, their spouses feel heard.
And when people feel heard, they don't feel the need to keep repeating themselves over and over or attacking. It's a breath of fresh air. Plus, the listener is comforted by the fact that soon will be his or her time to have the floor. Even if this seems awkward to you, try it. You may be surprised how much you like it. The next time you find yourselves falling head-first into your relationship abyss, grab your lifeline. Agree to do active listening.
Illustration from Clyde Mendes column at MetroSexual LA