I have a friend -- let's call her Sarah -- who has been having the same argument with her husband for 20 years. In a nutshell, she sometimes says things in a way that he feels is demeaning or disrespectful. It's never her intention to come across that way. In fact, she rarely even notices when she says things in that tone. He notices though, and although he understands that it's not her intent, he feels disrespected every time.
She and her husband talk about it regularly. She and I talk about it regularly. The three of us have even talked about it. They really want this argument to stop.
But it's been 20 years and it's not stopping. They've put a lot into trying to figure it out and find a solution. The thing is, they have a pretty great relationship aside from this trap they fall into.
So I asked Sarah this: What if you knew that you were going to live the next 40 years with this argument popping up from time to time? What if you had a crystal ball that told you that you would stay together and have all the good times you have now, and that this issue would never be "solved"?
Because what it really comes down to is something that sounds pretty heretical. I would think it was insane too if I didn't find it to be One of the Most Helpful Things Ever.
That completely paradoxical, unconventional possibility is this: Maybe this problem does not need to be solved.
For one, trying to fix the problem often does more harm than good. In this case, after the tension of their fight dies down, Sarah and her husband always pow wow to see if the most recent fight gave them any clues that will help them avoid the trap in the future.
Sounds like a good idea, doesn't it? It's one of those things that's hard to argue with on the face of it, except for the fact that in 20 years they've never managed to find the key to avoiding the trap.
And except for the fact that sitting down and revisiting the tension once the tension has dissipated feels a little counterintuitive, doesn't it? And that examining the trap over and over again gives a lot of attention and importance to "The Trap."
Sarah admitted that she often walked away from those pow wows feeling more frustrated and hopeless because -- although their nice feelings for each other had returned -- they hadn't exactly seen each other's point of view or solved the disagreement.
I remember feeling similar, early in my relationship with my husband. I thought problems needed to be solved, preferably before either of us slept for the night, and I can tell you that the outcome was often that we got very little sleep.
We had both been handed down this work-it-out, don't-go-to-bed-angry "wisdom", and it seemed to make sense in theory. In practice however, it usually seemed to make things worse.
What if there is nothing to solve?
We don't always understand others' points of view; in fact, we rarely truly do. But that's fine because we don't have to. We only have to see that they have a point of view that is very different from ours, but just as compelling to them.
It's like my husband with Chicago Bears fans. He can't begin to fathom how people could love the Bears, but he totally gets the idea that someone could love another team with the same intensity with which he loves his Green Bay Packers. So you agree to disagree. You acknowledge that you have separate realities and that those realities are just as real and valid to the people who live within them, and you move along.
Maybe a couple having one trap they frequently fall into is just par for the course; part of being a couple.
What if It Doesn't Really Matter? When my husband and I stopped trying to fix all our disagreements, the vast majority of them ended up going away on their own.
Forty years from now, Sarah and her husband might look back at their amazing life and their 60 year marriage and say, "We sure had some great times. And that funny trap we always fell into... wasn't that the strangest thing? It's so nice to see how we always bounced back. Our feelings for each were clearly much deeper than that trap. We had some unnecessary fights but at least we always came back together in the end."
We don't need to solve all of our problems. Not every disturbance or uncomfortable scenario in our lives is waiting for a fix, especially when a fix is nowhere to be found. Seeing a very human trap for what it is can be more than enough to make it a non-issue.
As Sarah and I were talking, I began thinking of her and her husband's trap in the same way I think about me and my husband stepping on Legos. I'm talking about literally stepping on Legos. With a two year old and four year old, it's a pain with which we're quite familiar.
So I asked Sarah: What if the trap the two of you find yourself in is like stepping on a Lego?
When you step on a Lego, you don't sit your two year old down for a lengthy discussion about how you feel when he leaves Legos out, and you don't create an action plan for eradicating the Lego issue once and for all. (If you do try that approach with a very young kid, you'll see why it doesn't work very well).
Instead, you remind them to pick up their toys, limp off in temporary pain and move on. You remember (or I try to, anyway), that your kids are just kids and that the deeper feeling you have for them goes far beyond the temporary pain of stepping on Legos.
Lego-in-the-foot pain is annoying but temporary, and it's not something you can or need to solve.
Perhaps stepping on Legos is just part of inviting little Lego-playing people into your world, like falling into traps is just part of being in a partnership.
Please don't think I'm not a fan of solutions. Your wisdom will bring you all kinds of awesome solutions if you let it.
It's just that if you're beating your head against the wall to find a solution, it helps to know that beating your head against the wall isn't a method that is known to bring brilliant solutions.
If I could give up solution-seeking in my relationship, and Sarah and her husband can give it up after 20 years, maybe you'd like to give it a shot.