There’s something strange about conflicts in marriage.
Modern couples could fight about thousands of different things. Life these days, after all, is messy, complicated, and full of an endless stream of logistical challenges, to-dos, and parenting dilemmas.
And yet, when it comes to what we actually fight about, most of us have a pretty short list. The same three to five recycled conflicts just keep popping up, again and again.
For us, it's three things: balancing time spent with each set of families, navigating our different views on money, and struggling to find consensus around what constitutes a “clean” living space (we'll let you guess which one of us has a higher set of standards).
Why do these same conflicts keep coming up?
Recycled conflicts are often a sign that one or both of you doesn’t feel heard. Sure, you may have expressed off-hand requests or vented your frustration. But, for whatever reason, you may still feel like your partner doesn't fully understand your perspective.
This can make it sound like it's your partner's fault -- that if they just listened to you, these longstanding disagreements would magically disappear.
But the truth is that recycled conflicts often show up when we fail to reveal our full truth. You may have mentioned your frustration in passing or through sarcasm, criticism, or humor. But the fact that this issue keeps repeating often means that it's possible you haven't slowed down the pace of conversation and expressed your concern directly in a way your partner can really hear.
So how can you improve your ability to navigate these recycled conflicts?
Revisiting that same conversation on that same issue you've bickered about thousands of times can feel like walking down a city street you've travelled many times before. You've been here so often that you think you've seen everything there is to see.
The result? Curiosity declines and assumptions proliferate.
In the case of our relationship, this leads us to think we know exactly what our partner is saying. We have, after all, been here so many times before. But that's the problem. These assumptions make it impossible to actually hear what our partner has to say.
So see what happens when you approach the conversations over your recycled issues with an intention to listen carefully, from a spirit of radical generosity. In the Zen tradition, this attitude of freshness is called "the beginner's mind." It's the idea that, even though you've been here before, the potential for change increases when you approach each new conversation on the topic as though it were your first.
These conflicts often keep coming back because we only reveal part of our truth or reveal our experience in ways that make it nearly impossible for our partner to hear our deepest request.
So see what happens when you reveal your full experience from a place of radical generosity. Instead of blasting them with criticism, share your experience of feeling hurt, upset, or frustrated as a gift to the relationship. Do it from kindness rather than anger, generosity rather than rage.
By shifting the spirit of the conversation and revealing your full experience, you alone hold the power to shift the nature of this conflict.
It may not vanish completely. It may still come back from time to time. But by listening carefully and revealing with generosity of spirit, this conflict will no longer return with the same force and intensity.