Who’s Right? Who Cares?

Last month’s article on conflict resolution stated that the intensity of feelings should be calibrated into the formula of conflict resolution in relationships. Rather than point fingers and argue who’s right, we should define the problem. And if one person has intense feelings about an action, those feelings should be respected. Marilyn, my wife, grew up in financially comfortable circumstances, while my parents struggled. My truck driver father, who had to put bread on the table, repeatedly said, “With ten thousand bucks in the bank, you don’t have to kiss anyone’s ass.” Forty-five years ago, when we were first married, Marilyn didn’t understand that my frugality resulted from a need for a financial cushion. “Turn off that light!” I said over and over. To me, the wolf was always at the door, but that worry was foreign to her. Since the intensity of my feelings was greater, she compromised and learned to shut lights off.

Another principle is domain. In relationships, specialization of function increases efficiency. Marilyn’s domain is the kitchen. She is an exploratory cook who continues to delight me with culinary surprises. Indeed, when we were first married I commented, “Frogs’ legs again?” Last week, for example, I enjoyed food from India, Mexico, Indonesia and Italy. With that exploration comes a plethora of spices and sauces that clutter up our kitchen and refrigerator. I stopped counting at 82 spice bottles with about 30 left, not to mention all the different sauces. I don’t like the clutter. Tough! The kitchen is her domain and Marilyn has final say in that area. If I want to continue to enjoy our meals, I must respect Marilyn’s reign over the kitchen.

In my domain are cars and investing. When Marilyn’s 1982 Honda was over the hill, we shopped together. I wanted a Subaru and Marilyn didn’t like it. Although it was my responsibility to select, her intensity vetoed that car. She preferred the VW we now have. However, Marilyn never demanded a specific car. That was left to me. Both principles of intensity and domain were involved. Marilyn didn’t want the Subaru and I selected the choices, which led to a happy compromise. I keep Marilyn informed of what stocks I buy. She has a big interest in the outcome, but essentially leaves investing to me. When my choices collapse, she doesn’t criticize. Every now and then, she’ll recommend that some stock may be worthwhile and I’ll look into it. Given our distribution of responsibilities of domains, the decision is basically mine. We avoid conflicts by having the specialization of functions. And we accept that neither will be perfect in reigning over our domains.

Marilyn is primarily in charge of entertainment. She avidly follows reviews of plays, concerts, movies and restaurants. It makes my life so much easier when she leads me by my nose ring to events that I mainly enjoy. I have veto power, but having Marilyn lead in the entertainment domain works for both of us.

Intimate relationships can be made or broken by how inevitable conflicts are handled. Style is critical. All too often, a discussion of differences is presented in either words or tone by criticism. If the tone is, “What’s wrong with you?” the likely result will be rigidity and conflict. If the differences are presented as differences and not personal evaluations, chances of resolution increase. People differ. I don’t like chocolate ice cream and I can’t be convinced to like it. I couldn’t convince Marilyn that the Subaru was fine and she can’t convince me to watch Twyla Tharp’s dance theater. Locking horns in a relationship is normal, but shouldn’t lead to a death struggle. Respecting specialization of function as well as the intensities of our preferences can increase efficiency and resolve conflicts in relationships.