He wasn’t expecting this kind of advice from me. “Say that again?”
“I don’t think either of you are really at fault for this situation.”
The situation I was referring to was their relationship, which had hit rocky ground. He was a minimalist neat freak, she was “creatively messy” and had a strong dose of the “collector gene”. Put another way, he liked Zen gardens, she liked dioramas of her action figures – but didn’t worry about dusting them.
They’d been fighting about it off and on for years.
“How is it not her fault? I told her to not just dump the mail across the kitchen table, and she keeps doing it. And…” There were more examples, but that one gives you an idea.
He looked crestfallen when I asked him if he’d let her know how he felt about the mail this time. “No,” he said. “I guess I just got tired of reminding her. So it’s my fault, because I’m not asking for what I want.”
“No, it’s not your fault. Well, yes, it is. Sort of, but not really.”
And that highlighted the important distinction that I – and so many other people – get tripped up with in disagreements.
A typical argument – especially a high-conflict one – looks at only the most recent “wrong” and then berates the other person about it. This provokes a response looking at the next most recent “wrong” to shame the shamer, and so on.
It is important to address each other’s behavior during the argument – but that usually doesn’t address (or solve) the underlying problem.
In this case, the two of them had very very different thresholds for how much clutter they could stand in their living space. That’s not really a “fault” thing, and (save for extreme cases like hoarding) doesn’t require a value judgement. Some people like it sparse, some people like it more cluttered. It’s a thing. It doesn’t matter… until people with different levels of tolerance for clutter try to live together.
But by only addressing the symptoms – mail on the table, in this example – it isn’t addressing the real issue.
It can also be terrifying to address the real issue, because you might discover there is no solution that is acceptable. I don’t mean “price of admission” issues here. I mean issues where the price is too damn high. One person has arachnophobia and the other insists on keeping pet tarantulas in every room? Yeah, that’s not going to work.
It’s even harder when these issues come to light after you’ve made an emotional investment in someone, or moved in together, or scrambled your DNA to make children. It’s so tempting to avoid these potentially extinction level disagreements that people will reflexively argue about everything else around the issue instead. And because the real issue is coming out sideways, there’s almost certainly bad behavior on all sides to complain about indefinitely.
Instead, it’s important to try to reach the fundamental problem. The fundamental problem where it’s not about “fault” so much as it’s about trying to make things work. Once the real problem is clearly in front of you, there’s room to work together on finding a way to make things work… or deciding that things will never work in as friendly a way as possible.
Aside from the (mostly) fictional example of clutter above, I’ve seen this pattern play out in issues around:
- How involved the extended family is in your lives
- Whether or not to have kids (or how many)?
- Libido / Sex drive
- How finances are handled
I’m sure that you can think up a half-dozen more.
So in these cases – and as always, presuming people are being honest – don’t waste your time arguing about who is at “fault” for the situation. Figure out what the fundamental issue is and discover if you are able to reach some kind of compromise. If you can’t – if none of you are willing to pay the price of admission – then there’s a completely different conversation to be had…but at least it’s an honest one.