It's hardly a surprise that every couple who comes for couples counselling has at least one sore spot that consistently triggers a down-and-dirty battle. But opening the lines of communication - and a little TLC - can lead to a compromise you can both live with.
From clashes over cash to arguments about inlaws - every couple has a sore spot that, given the right triggers, can explode in a full-blown battle. But although we all fight about common issues, each couple's successful solutions are unique.
Turning the battleground into a level playing field begins with communication. If you and your partner can talk about the problem, you can probably find a solution that works for you.
Corey and Mark used to squabble every evening over whose turn it was to wash the dishes. Finally, they decided to buy a dishwasher - expensive, but a small price for peace, they thought.
"I should have known," says Corey. "We started arguing over whose turn it was to load and unload the machine." A marriage in crisis? Not necessarily. According to psychotherapist Sharon Lowe of Karyl Pope and Associates in Burlington, Ont., Corey and Mark's situation is not so unusual in the world of relationships.
"Couples usually fight about the same things," she says. Often they'll go over and over the same sore spot. And chances are it's something that has set off fireworks between most couples at one time or another. It can be encouraging, agrees Sally Muir, a marriage counsellor and relationship therapist with The Family Therapy Clinic in Toronto, to know that someone, somewhere, has already had the same argument and figured out how to solve it.
With that in mind, we've quizzed couples and relationship therapists about some of the most common problems partners fight about, and their suggestions for working out your differences. The marriage therapists stress that each situation - and each couple - is unique; what worked in these particular cases may not necessarily work for you and your mate. But communication is key - if you can talk about it, you can come up with a solution that works for you.
1. Housework from Hell
Washing dishes, scrubbing floors, taking out the garbage, cleaning the toilet - it's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it. Unfortunately, agreeing who does what is even a more horrible chore for some couples, like Corey and Mark. Some may try to drag paycheque power into it. Others are still stuck with outdated stereotypes of "women's work." And housework is always there - a handy lightning rod for couples who are really angry about something else they are not comfortable dealing with yet.
What Mark and Corey did: They talked about their attitudes toward housework, and where they came from. They realized they hated doing dishes, for reasons that were ancient history - Mark because his father always thought it was "sissy"; Corey because her mother had always criticized her childhood dishwashing technique - reasons that had nothing to do with their adult selves.
2. Mad Money
Couples can get surprisingly hot under the collar about cold cash - whether to save or spend, what to spend it on, how to share paycheques. Michelle says, "They're laying off people where I work, but Dave plunked down half our savings for a pool table. I nearly throttled him.""Money's a huge issue these days," says Sharon Lowe. This is partly because of the dicey job situation - but for some it has powerful emotional overtones of love and security.
What Michelle and Dave did: Dave admitted he often got carried away by spending impulses he later regretted, so he was actually relieved when they switched their savings account to one that required both signatures for a withdrawal.
3. Bringing up Baby
"Jake insists the girls should be made to eat everything on their plates, whether they're hungry or not," says Polly. "I'm sure he's only making them neurotic about food."
It's only natural that you won't start up with identical ideas on how to bring up children, Lowe points out. "No two partners come from the same family situations, so no two have had the same parenting." Adding fuel to the fire, blended family situations can bring other mismatched parenting styles into the mix. Throw in a kid who has learned to manipulate guilty parents, and even Barney would lose his cool.
What Polly and Jake did: They agreed that all they really wanted was what was best for their daughters. So now they try to get a third-party, expert opinion that makes sense to both of them. This might come from books, their pediatrician, or the girls' day-care supervisor.
4. In-laws and Outlaws
They're meddling family members, ex-spouses who won't let go, or freeloading pals who don't know when to go home - and they're trouble. They horn in on a relationship, criticizing, interfering, or hogging one partner's time and attention while the other one seethes.
"Every weekend old buddy Brad is at our house, watching sports with Jeff - he even went on our last vacation with us," says Lynne, disgustedly.
What Lynne and Jeff did: After a lot of talk and some help from a therapist, Jeff admitted that Lynne deserved more attention, and is now encouraging Brad to get a life of his own. And Lynne is planning their next holiday at a "couples only" resort.
5. Holiday Hostilities
"We had our first fight on our honeymoon," Vivian recalls. "Kyle wanted to lie on the beach and drink daiquiries, and I wanted to go shopping and sightseeing. By the time we got home we weren't speaking."
Dealing with unspoken expectations, strange food and beds, wonky routines, sunburn and Montezuma's revenge can make anyone testy, and big family holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hanukkah add the extra delights of deciding which in-laws to visit, and coping with them when you arrive.
What Vivian and Kyle did: When they finally started talking again, they realized that each had imagined a different honeymoon, but neither had mentioned it to the other. Now, they agree on what to do and see before they book a vacation.
6. I'm Okay, You're Weird
He leaves the top off the toothpaste, bursts into song in public places, and invites people over on a whim. She plans everything weeks in advance, arranges the kitchen cupboards alphabetically, and always put the top on the toothpaste. Is there hope? "These two people invariably get together," laughs Sally Muir, and "each can be good for the other." He could teach her to relax more and she could help him with personal organization.
What this couple did: They bought "his" and "hers" toothpaste tubes and practiced looking for something that they could learn from every quirk. They weren't always successful, but they were often entertained.
7. All-Work or All-Play Mates
Paul complains that his wife, Nancy, an editor, is "always going in early and working late - and weekends she lugs home a briefcase and laptop." Nancy says Paul is so addicted to TV sports in winter and golf in summer that she's surprised he even noticed. Both feel neglected, so they seek solace in - you guessed it - more work and more play.
What Nancy and Paul are trying: To recapture the spark of dating. They meet sometimes for lunch in a romantic little restaurant near her office, or take in a movie or sports event after work. And they talk on the phone now almost as much as they did before they were married.
8. Sex - a touchy subject
Too much or too little, too boring or too adventurous, or simply not on the same wavelength? "I've never yet met a couple who both had the same sex drive," says Lowe, noting that she sees a lot of fights about this, but that the reason for the quarrel might be disguised as something else. And frequently, "couples don't fight as much as they just don't talk about it," says Sally Muir.
One couple said, "We never seemed to get around to making love - one of us was always tired or too busy, and someone's feelings were always hurt because they felt rejected. Then I read somewhere about scheduling it in your calendar. It didn't sound very romantic, but we tried it, and it really works - it's exciting, like a date."
Men and women "really don't speak the same language," says Sally Muir. For instance, he may see silently watching TV together as quality companionship; she may think he's ignoring her - to her, relating means talking. And women typically want communication before sex, while sex is communication for many men, she notes.
Actually talking about how men and women communicate differently, and trying to think of examples in your own relationship, can be surprising - and very revealing.
No matter which of these irritants pushes your bicker button, couples therapists agree there's one sure-fire step toward peaceful resolution - real communication. Sally Muir has each partner tell his or her side of the argument, while the other one listens without judging or interrupting. Then, the listener has to repeat back what was just said. "That makes them actually listen," she says - a new experience for some.
Muir also thinks it's important that couples decide together what the rules will be, and who will do what. "People will fight about any area that hasn't been defined," says Muir.
Sharon Lowe also emphasizes communication, and the importance of honesty, of not blaming or accusing each other when you talk things out. "Stop and ask yourself if you're stuck in 'always,' as in 'You always ignore me,'" she says. Instead, try to express your own feelings, as in "I feel ignored."
Being willing to compromise, to go more than halfway in making the relationship work, is also essential, she feels. Fifty-fifty is not enough, says Lowe - "both partners should give 110 per cent" to make sure all bases are covered.
Instead of seeing differences as a problem, suggests Sally Muir, try celebrating them. "Accept that you're completely different people, and that different is neither right nor wrong." Above all, she says, "Stay curious, and get your partner to explain how he arrived at the viewpoint you disagree with. As long as you can talk about your family backgrounds, life experiences and other things that make you two unique people," says Muir, "there's hope."
But what if you're stuck on an issue you just can't resolve, or every discussion erupts in a shouting match? "I believe every couple needs help sometimes in their relationship," says Lowe, and the earlier you seek therapy, the easier and quicker you may get results.
As for Corey and Mark's dishwasher dilemma, after some serious negotiation they decided on a compromise - now they do the dishes as a team. A bonus: "We used to spend our evenings separately, but now, whatever conversation we started at dinner just continues on. We're actually talking more now thanks to the dishes."