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Dealing with What is… Even When it is Not What We Want it to Be…

By Kate Double, MSW, LCSW

I have been giving a lot of thought lately to conflict and disappointment in relationships.  Of course, as a couple counselor I am always thinking about conflict and disappointment in relationships, but I’ve been conceptualizing it a little differently lately – noticing something in my patients and in myself that is very important.  It seems basic.  It is basic.  But it is also hard to remember in the moment.  A lot of conflict arises because we each want certain things out of our relationships, and we know that what we want is totally reasonable.  Most of the time, we’re right.  What we want is reasonable.  The problem is that just because what we want is reasonable does not make the other person unreasonable for wanting something different.  

You want the house clean to a certain standard and feel your partner should comply because what you want is completely reasonable.  Of course, there could be an unreasonable standard (let’s not be unhealthy or unsafe), but much of the time it isn’t about health and safety, it is simply a difference in standards.  Maybe you want to spend a lot of time with family, and it is reasonable to expect that your partner share in that with you.  But your partner might also be reasonable in wanting to spend less time with your family in order to indulge other hobbies, work, or social needs.  You might want to have sex weekly, which is totally reasonable.  But if your partner wants to have sex three nights a week, then you have a mismatch, but no one is unreasonable.  

When people are totally reasonable in what they want (the vast majority of the time), it often creates hurt and anger when they don’t get it.  This is some of the origin of cyclical fights that couples have.  If what I want is totally reasonable, I figure that I need to just explain it to my partner differently, harder, longer, louder, in a different context… you see where I am going with this.  Perpetual problems are created.  It is very, very difficult to let go of things that are totally reasonable to want in a relationship.  And most of us get kind of stuck there – we stop at the idea that what we want is totally reasonable.  Maybe we talk to our friends and they confirm that we are being reasonable.  Maybe we do deep self-reflection to make sure that we are being reasonable.  But at the end of the day, someone else has the right to want something else.  And they can also be totally reasonable, too.  

Why am I talking in circles?  Because pain is generated when we feel we should be able to have what we want and continuing to try to get it from someone that does not want to give it creates disappointment, discontent, and conflict.  I often find myself reminding people in therapy that changing your partner – or anyone else – is not a valid therapy goal and it just does not work.  I may even have said this in previous blog post.  I can’t say this enough.  We can’t change other people and trying is an exercise in frustration.  Sometimes letting go of the control and not trying to make someone change and not trying to make someone want something that they don’t want can be a huge relief and can create instant improvement in relationships.  It can also help us to evaluate whether the issues are of critical importance or if they can be let go entirely.  Sometimes these patterns can become very tangled and difficult to unravel – and that is one place where couple counseling may help.