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Friday
Dec092011

We Fight All of the Time and Want Different Things: Can We Make it Work?

Michael submitted the following question:

I am in a relationship with this guy and things are feeling rocky right now. I feel like we argue pretty frequently. I try to argue with I-statements and repeat his concerns with active listening. I am trying to communicate but the concerns that I bring up are small to him (I confirmed this with him). For example, checking out someone else in front of your partner, or making culturally insensitive comments. We talk things out and give each other space. I also feel like he is in the gay scene often and I am not (by choice) and I won't lie it concerns me when he gets drunk at a gay bar with slutty men around. I am also in an indirect battle with one of his gay best friends that is in love with him, is HIV positive and I quote told my bf, "You can do better than Michael."  I stay with him though because I care about him a lot and a part of me loves him and I know he loves me too. His heart is in the right place.

Dear Michael,

Although your partner perceives your concerns as “small,” it seems pretty clear that these are quite big issues to you. Otherwise, why would you keep bringing them up and having the same fights over and over? The problem seems to be that the two of you have fundamentally different ideas about what constitutes acceptable behavior in a relationship. Neither of you are necessarily in the wrong here; it’s just that you guys have conflicting approaches to love.

You are not alone in being upset that your partner is checking out other guys right in front of you. There are plenty of people of all genders and sexual orientations who might see this as a potential deal-breaker—and for good reason. Research shows that the more attention people pay to their romantic alternatives, the more likely they are to break up.1 This isn’t true for everyone, though. Many couples allow each other to have “wandering eyes” and think it’s only natural to find other people attractive. In fact, some couples (both heterosexual and homosexual) go much further than just acknowledging their attractions to others and even permit sexual interactions outside of the relationship (e.g., people who “swing” or have “open” relationships).2 For the right couple, such arrangements can work.

I am not suggesting that the key to solving your problems is to join a swingers’ club; rather, I mention this simply because different approaches to love exist and one key to relationship success is being with someone who has the same romantic ideals. There is a wealth of research showing that when similarity between partners is high (and this includes similarity in attitudes toward fidelity), so is relationship quality.3 Thus, if you’re a complete monogamist, then your best chance of having a successful relationship is with someone who shares that value as well. It’s hard to continue a relationship in the long run if you and your partner want different things.

This is not to say that your current relationship is doomed. There’s still a chance for survival if the two of you can agree on some terms for acceptable relationship conduct. How do you do this? Using the positive communication skills you’ve already developed (it appears you’ve done some research in this area), start by telling your partner that you want to create some ground rules in the hope that this will reduce the amount of conflict you’re having. If your partner isn’t interested in having this talk at all, it’s probably a sign that this relationship isn’t meant to be.

However, if he’s open to the idea, there’s a good chance you guys can get back to a happy place. Don’t expect to get everything you want, though—you’ll both need to compromise. Each of you must be willing to sacrifice a little of your own self-interest for the sake of the other. This is one of the signs of a very healthy relationship.4 One compromise might be that you learn to accept the fact that he may look (but not touch) other guys from time to time and he, in turn, will become more sensitive to cultural issues and apply a filter to what comes out of his mouth. Another compromise might be that he agrees to spend less time in the “gay scene” overall, but you agree to accompany him out more (e.g., maybe you decide what to do and where to go on Friday nights, and he decides what to do and where to go on Saturday nights).

As for the issue with his best friend, that one is harder to address. Your time and energy is not well spent battling with your partners’ friends. Your best bet is to communicate with your partner directly and tell him how his friend has hurt you, but do this in a way that is calm, rational, and avoids setting up an “it’s either him or me” ultimatum. If your partner’s heart really is in the right place, he should understand why you’re upset and (hopefully) offer a potential solution.

In short, I think it’s worth trying to save the relationship by communicating clearly about these problem areas and setting up some concrete rules. However, keep in mind that both of you deserve to be happy. If these changes fail to bring back those positive feelings, it might be time to move on.

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1Miller, R. S. (1997). Inattentive and contented: Relationship commitment and attention to alternatives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 758-766.

2Rubin, R. H. (2001). Alternative lifestyles revisited, or whatever happened to swingers, group marriages, and communes? Journal of Family Issues, 22, 711-726.

3Wilson, G. D., & Cousins, J. M. (2003). Partner similarity and relationship satisfaction: Development of a compatibility quotient.  Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 18, 161-171.

4Van Lange, P. A., Rusbult, C. E., Drigotas, S. M., Arriaga, X. B., Witcher, B. S., & Cox, C. L. (1997). Willingness to sacrifice in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 1373-1395.

Dr. Justin Lehmiller - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lehmiller's research program focuses on how secrecy and stigmatization impact relationship quality and physical and psychological health. He also conducts research on commitment, sexuality, and safer-sex practices.

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