Bickering Is Not A Sign Of Incompatibility: On Conflict In Long-Term Relationships

The bridge from romance to long-term relationship is figuring out how to stop revolving around one another and instead work together to build your mutual life.

My partner Valerie and I don’t work very well together. If I ask her for help in putting together a piece of furniture, she assumes I need her to take charge, when in fact I just want her to hand me a screwdriver. When she asks me for help I suggest short cuts that in my mind are “good enough” solutions to various roadblocks. What constitutes “good enough” for me is “half-assed” in Valerie’s (and probably most other people’s) lexicon. Tempers flare. Blood pressures soar.

Early on in our relationship, I saw this as a potentially fatal flaw. How could I contemplate spending forever with a person whom I couldn’t even calmly assemble a piece of furniture with? Well, 17 years in, I can say that I was putting too much pressure on our relationship to think we needed to share tasks to make our relationship equitable.

Valerie and I rarely share the same chore anymore. Now we share goals and split the work in a way that works for us. She is detail-oriented and concerned with precision so she does our taxes, deals with insurance companies, manages finances, etc. I value efficiency over perfection so more physical tasks like laundry or packing the house for a move fall under my purview.

Most couples I know that have been together for a long time have worked out a similar compromise. The process is an important part of turning a romance into a long-term relationship.

When Valerie and I first started dating, a good portion of my life revolved around her. I thought about her all the time. I saw her whenever possible. New love is magic. It’s also fleeting.

Many times, relationships end when the people involved break past that initial veil of newness and mystery. Constant romance is hard to sustain when you learn that your lover wakes up cranky, soaks the bathroom floor when they take a shower, or repeatedly tells the same stories.

Often our first impulse is to try to change ourselves or the other person. This is the trap I fell into when I first worried about Valerie’s and my inability to complete a home improvement task together. When we opened the instructions for a new pair of book shelves, I tried to stifle my opinion and let her lead. After about five seconds of that, I felt suffocated and began to nag her about being bossy. The situation deteriorated from there.

Some people don’t want to descend into this muck and so end romances before they become too entwined. I get the appeal of a single life, it saves a lot of emotional negotiation.

But with Valerie, I knew that beyond the trivial arguments, we shared many of the same goals and values. I wanted to spend my life with her. The bridge from romance to long-term relationship is figuring out how to stop revolving around one another and instead work together to build your mutual life.

This involves acceptance. Valerie and I are both natural leaders. We don’t work well together because we both want to be in charge. Instead of constantly butting heads or attempting to fight our individual natures, we split our tasks. And we sprinkle in massive amounts of humor over the sore spots in our relationship.

We still bicker. We recently relocated from Chicago to California and the process has been rife with split opinions. The difference now versus early on in our relationship is that I don’t worry that the bickering is a sign of incompatibility. It’s just how we get through stressful times.

And did I mention that we make sure to keep our senses of humor?

Anne Penniston Grunsted writes about parenting, disability, and family life from her perspective as a lesbian mama. She has been published in The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Mamamia, and won the 2014 Nonfiction prize from Beecher’s Magazine. She lives in California with her partner and son.

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