When you’re putting together your list of what to look for in your future husband or wife, you probably cycle through the usual stuff: similar interests, funny, Christian, being attractive wouldn’t hurt. These are all varying degrees of important, but one thing not enough of us think about is how well you fight with the person you’re going to marry.
It’s true. Conflict is a part of marriage and unlike most conflicts you have in life, you can’t just walk away from marital ones. You’ve really got to grapple with your points of disagreement and reach for some level of mutual understanding.
Every couple is a little different, but research tells us that there are some exceedingly common areas of conflict for married couples. In study after study, money and sex are the most common points of disagreement in marriage. The specifics may change but, broadly speaking, those are the marital minefields.
The more you think about it, the more it makes sense. Money and sex famously breed a lot of secrecy, insecurity and fear. In both sex and money, past indiscretions can catch up with you in surprising ways, and irresponsibility can follow us even after we tie the knot. A lot of us grew up without having healthy attitudes about money or sex modeled for us, so we carried our own poor perspectives, attitudes and habits about sex and money into our marriages — and it’s taken a hefty price.
There’s no easy way to deal with a relationship strained by conflict, but there are few practices that we can use to set us on the right path. These aren’t shortcuts exactly — very few places worth getting to have a shortcut — but they are necessary tools for the journey.
1. Replace Secrecy With Honesty
The most obvious root of our trouble with sex and money is how much of it we keep locked up and hidden away. With money, this could look like hidden credit card debt, irresponsible spending habits or just a bad budget blunder. With sex, this could be a private addiction, an affair or just a friendship with a friend or co-worker that you know is growing dangerously flirtatious.
Whatever the issue, your first step should absolutely be raw, uncompromising honesty. People regret lying every day, all the time. Very few people have ever regretted telling the truth. The fact of the matter is that your house of cards will tumble, sooner or later. Secrets and lies are terribly fragile — you can either break them yourself or wait for circumstance to do it for you. Telling the truth might be painful and lead to awful conversations, but it’s far better to initiate those conversations on your own terms than to have them initiated for you. And on the other side of those conversations? Freedom. “The truth,” after all, “shall set you free.”
2. See Vulnerability as Confidence
The poet Criss Jami writes that “To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.” Our cultural understanding of confidence as being someone who never shows any signs of weakness or insecurity is a weed that has sunk its roots into our very core, and it needs to be pulled by any means necessary.
Sex is vulnerability, through and through. To have sex at all is to open yourself up to the possibility of embarrassment, shame and need.
Money requires more vulnerability than we think, since our bank statements reveal more about us than we’d care to admit.
In both cases, our culture has idolized people who don’t need to be vulnerable with sex or money. They don’t need to have difficult conversations about consent or discomfort in bed, and they don’t need to think about when and how they spend their money. We call these people confident but here’s the thing: They are entirely fictional.
True confidence is found in sharing your real feelings about these things with your partner. It’s messy and you may not have all the right words for it, but struggling through your embarrassment and insecurity is the only way to get everything out in the open and know where you stand and where your partner stands. That’s where real confidence is found.
3. Trade Judgment for Empathy
With any difficult conversation, the easy way out is to judge. Put your partner in a box with a label on it so you don’t have to deal with the nuances of what they’re saying. When you judge someone, it’s easy to dismiss what they’re saying as unreasonable or emotional or just plain dumb.
We do this with sex and money a lot. We assume poor people are just lazy, so we don’t actually have to think about the realities of poverty. We assume women telling their stories of sexual harassment are just looking for attention or were asking for it somehow. These are damaging narratives when applied this broadly, and they’re even worse when we use them against our partner. If they have a different way of tackling money, they’re being irresponsible. If they have a sexual insecurity, they’re just being uptight. We craft these simplistic, one-dimensional labels to protect ourselves from really engaging with what’s happening.
The solution to this is empathy — taking a step away from our own perspective and really listening to what our partners are saying.
This does not have to mean automatically agreeing with your partner. Empathy does not mean throwing your own opinions and convictions of the sacrificial altar of conflict avoidance. It just means that you reach for understanding instead of judgment. Empathy is, as the novelist Barbara Kingsolver put it, “the opposite of spiritual meanness. It’s the capacity to understand that … someone else’s pain is as meaningful as your own.”
And when you replace secrets with honesty, see vulnerability as confidence and trade judgment for empathy, it won’t solve all your conflicts. In fact, it might create more of it, in the short term. But it will make for healthier conflict, and that will build toward a lasting peace.