Living Happily Incompatibly | 3

When it comes to tidiness and order Angie and Tom have a perpetual issue on their hands!

Angie was brought up in a family where both mum and dad had to work full time. Being the eldest of three siblings she learned to be organised, help prepare meals, help siblings with school work as well as getting them ready for school each morning. For Angie, living in orderly environments brings a sense of satisfaction.

Tom holds a very challenging job as a Physics researcher and university lecturer where keeping track of details is vital and he does a brilliant job. But when it comes to the home environment he is the typical absent minded professor who constantly loses keys, his wallet and doesn’t seem to notice things being out of place. “Organised chaos” is comfortable for him.

After 12 years of marriage Angie is still the ‘neat freak’ as Tom laughingly calls her and he is the ‘sloppy professor’ but they manage to cope well because they have learned to see this issue as an annoyance that they can talk about. Understanding the reason for this difference between the level of neatness and organization each of them is comfortable with, is the key to avoid gridlock. Respectful dialogues allow them to live ‘happily incompatibly’.

James feels very frustrated. “I am an organized person who likes order but not to the extent my wife Alice does. I get very angry because I have to constantly waste time looking for things when she puts them away before I even finish using them - I am sick of this. I think she is inconsiderate and very controlling!”

Maybe James’ experience feels familiar to you. Your perspective is not considered and you feel stuck with an issue that keeps recurring!

Let’s start by remembering that perpetual issues most probably will always be part of your relationship. The goal is to learn to talk about the issue without hurting each other and learn to live with it.

Understanding the reason why each partner holds tight to their individual perspective about a perpetual issue and is unable to budge, is the starting point in moving toward dialogue rather than getting gridlocked.

Whether you face a minor issue like how to decorate your home or a monumental one like whether to bring up your children under a particular religious faith, if you are feeling stuck it is because your life dreams are not being respected by your partner.

Beneath a strong view or position there is a dream, a meaning, a symbolism, or childhood experience (Gottman). When that dream, hope or wish is not acknowledged or respected by your partner the natural human reaction is to dig your heels in and not budge.

Dreams within the conflict can vary in their intensity. They can be simple practical ones such as the dream to save a certain amount of money, but at a deeper level that financial dream may be linked to a deeper meaning: a need for security.

This is what Alice learned about James’ past experiences that have shaped his reaction to her intense need for neatness and organisation in the house.

James’ parents were very strict disciplinarians. Disagreements were not tolerated at home and they were considered insubordinations. As a result James became rebellious. He has carried that attitude throughout his life, hence being self-employed because he admits having a problem with authority. For James his home should be a place where he can be himself. A place where he doesn’t have to follow strict rules and he thrives on the idea of allowing his kids to challenge his authority to allow them to learn to think for themselves. He longs to feel free at home, free to be himself even if that means his lifestyle may be a bit sloppy at times. James’ dream within this conflict is about freedom.

When James asked Alice to think about what could be the meaning behind her need for tidiness he learned that she grew up in a home where her parents were very disorganised. She never knew who would pick her up from school, if there would be a meal ready or if she would have clean clothes to wear. She lived in a chaotic environment all her childhood and hated it.

As a result from a young age Alice took it upon herself to create order for her and her siblings’ sake. She now understands that for her, tidiness and order represent security, a sense of having control over something and this brings peace to her world. Mess in the house takes her back to the chaos of her childhood, something she detests.

Some other examples of dreams within couples’ conflicts are:

  • Unity

  • Adventure

  • Justice

  • Healing

  • Becoming all I can be

  • Exploring a creative side of self

  • Being noticed

  • Being allowed to truly relax

  • Travel

  • Having a sense of order

  • Financial security

  • Stability (emotional or in practical aspects)

‘Dreams’ of themselves are not a problem. The problem arises when they remain hidden in the unconscious and when they are not honoured or respected and then strong emotions and reactions are provoked.

A couple may think they fight about where to go out for dinner on Sunday night but the real issue may be one person delights with the idea of eating out on Sunday nights since that is a reminder of happy childhood memories, whereas for the other person perhaps Sunday nights were special family times when a busy working mum was able to cook and the whole family got together. Sunday evening meals have a totally different meaning for this couple and once they can talk about their individual memories and wishes, compromise can be better achieved.

I wonder what your particular perpetual issues are and what the dreams within your conflicts are?

It is each partner’s responsibility to identify their individual dreams. Once they are shared, showing compassion and a desire to honour the other’s dreams the best possible way is then possible.

This process takes time and practice. It is easier said than done, but if we want to live ‘happily incompatibly’ why not learn the skills? If you and your partner are struggling in a gridlock situation, don’t hesitate to contact me and let’s embark on a journey of discovery that can lead to happier bonding dynamics with your partner.

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