Conflict of values leads to squabbles

May 29, 1994|By From Ladies' Home Journal Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

"I'm so lonely I can't help wishing I were still single," sighs Suzanne, 33, who owns her own small business. When she met Joe, "I knew I was in love," she recalls. Still, to make sure they were right for each other, they decided to live together for six months first. "By that time we were positive we knew each other well," she adds. "We had the most lavish wedding and honeymoon. How could we have been so wrong?"

Now, just shy of their first anniversary, they battle constantly -- almost always about money.

"I want to enjoy life while we're still young," explains Suzanne, who remembers how her parents denied themselves any enjoyment because they were afraid they wouldn't have enough money when they got older. And she's seen too many of her friends' marriages collapse because they placed too much emphasis on their careers. "I refuse to live like that, to feel guilty if I want to do something or buy something. Why else are we working?" she wonders.

But though the couple has paid off all debts from the wedding, Joe, a skilled computer technician, is a workaholic and insists on saving every penny. "To me, that means postponing living," insists Suzanne. Time and again, she has, with much embarrassment, canceled social plans at the last minute because Joe accepted yet another assignment. Though she loves Joe, she thinks their ideas of what a couple needs are too far apart.

Joe, 26, loved their wedding, too, but was shocked to see how much they had actually spent: "We had to borrow money to pay for it all."

Joe had never been in debt before, and it made him upset and anxious. "My grandfather always told me, 'Spend four dollars out of every five you make and put one dollar away for the future.' " Joe thinks Suzanne acts like a spoiled teen-ager.

He hates to see his wife upset but abhors arguing with her. "She screams her way through life," Joe says. "It's better that I leave the room. We're not communicating. I guess we don't have much in common after all."

Unspoken expectations

"While the obvious problem is that Joe and Suzanne are not communicating, the key issue, which they are unaware of, is the underlying power struggle that precipitates their bickering," explains Jane Greer, a marriage counselor in private practice in New York and Douglaston, N.Y. Many couples have preconceived notions of who their ideal mate will be. Since they are in love, they idealize their partners, but that can often obscure the expectations each has for marriage. They may not discover until much later that some of their deepest values are in conflict. For instance, Joe was driven by a need for financial security and was shocked at his wife's cavalier attitude toward their future. Suzanne was influenced by her parents, who continued to deny themselves any happiness. Each assumed the other felt the same way.

Could unspoken expectations be at the root of your arguments? To find out, write down five characteristics or qualities you hope to find in a partner. Also jot down five things that you hope will never surface. Be honest. This should be done not only before a couple makes a commitment but also periodically throughout the relationship.

When Suzanne and Joe compared lists, they saw they had noted many of the same qualities: being honest with each other emotionally, spending time together, mutual trust and respect. This exercise gave them the courage to work on compromises instead of assuming they didn't have anything in common.

Suzanne and Joe mapped out a social schedule together, and since she had listed keeping promises as one of her essential characteristics, Joe vowed to respect these plans. Seeing his effort, Suzanne became less argumentative, which eased the tension and did much to pave the way for further changes.

Now, they make an effort to spend time together -- over coffee in the morning, at dinner, whenever they can grab a few minutes to discuss what they believe in and dream about. This, too, helps them reaffirm how much they do have in common.

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