How often do you hear these clichés?

“There’s no ‘I’ in “team;”
“We’ve got to pull together.”
“We’re only as strong as the weakest link.”
“Many strands of a cord are not easily broken.”

Yet, as often as we hear these clichés, we remain incredibly individualistic. We are determined to do things our way, maintain our stubborn positions, and fight tooth and nail to drive our personal agenda.

Stubborn individualism is, in my opinion, at the root of many relationship problems. Couples coming for couples counseling are, without exception, caught in power struggles. Rather than attacking their problems, facing issues as a team, they attack each other. It is no wonder by the time they reach me they have wounded and bruised each other until there are only a few frayed strands holding them together.

“She’s wrong,” Karl recently told me during a counseling session, referring to his girlfriend. “How can she accuse me of not caring about her when all I want is for my relationship to thrive?”

“You say you want our relationship to thrive,” his girlfriend, Jody jumped in quickly. “But, you won’t cut back on your work schedule. You wouldn’t come to counseling until I threatened to stop seeing you. You keep doing the things I ask you not to do. Your life doesn’t involve me.”

“I have never resisted counseling,” Karl protested. “I wanted to see if we could work on things ourselves before coming to a professional.”

“Yeah,” Jody said. “That’s the same as resisting.”

“And just because I have my own set of friends doesn’t mean I don’t want a life with you.”

“Hold it,” I said. “Can you see that you are battling each other instead of seeking places of agreement?”

“I don’t understand,” Jody said. “We don’t have any places of agreement. We disagree on everything and it’s killing me.”

Karl nodded his head, appearing dejected.

I was reminded of one Abraham Lincoln’s famous speeches where he, quoting from Scripture, spoke about a nation divided, saying “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Scripture reminds us, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” (Matthew 12: 25) This is eminently true in relationships as well.

Yet, we continue to battle each other instead of sitting down in a spirit of reconciliation, laying out our troubles, preparing to face them as a team.

A recent email illustrates this problem:
Dr. David. My wife and I can’t seem to stop battling each other. It’s gotten to ridiculous proportions, to the point that we can’t seem to even agree on what our problems actually are. I think she is self-centered and immature, and she says the same thing of me. I honestly don’t think she is right, but I can’t help but wonder. She has a short fuse and yet accuses me of the same thing. She has my head spinning. I don’t know which one of us is the greatest crazymaker. How can we stop battling each other and start addressing our problems as a team?

This is a great question, and the fact that he is even asking the question suggests he may be ready to face his problems from a more healthy perspective. Let’s consider some of the tools he and his wife can use to face problems in a healthier way, learning to attack problems and not each other.

First, remember that arguing with your mate over any issue will erode the integrity of your relationship. Extensive arguments erode positive feelings, leading to bitterness and resentment. When a couple battles over any issue for a protracted period of time, they become enemies. They lose perspective and the issues actually become larger rather than smaller.

Second, taking a position against our mate is in itself divisive. It is very easy to make an enemy out of your mate for their point of view. Slow down, soften your point of view to include an understanding of why your mate believes the way they do.

Third, practice empathy for their point of view. While your mate may indeed become too rigid in their perspective, empathizing with them will have more chance of softening them than tackling them head on.

Fourth, seek points of agreement. Discover what points you agreement upon, focusing on them rather than on the ones where you disagree. Always strive to find places where your opinions overlap and build upon them. With this focus you will lessen any likelihood of becoming overly focused on places of disagreement.

Finally, fight the problems, not each other. Agree that you need to become better communicators, seeking ways to make that happen. Agree you need to fight less frequently, seeking ways of healthier conflict resolution. Agree that you have places of disagreement—which is perfectly natural. Finding ways to compromise will be a challenge, but you’re up to the task. Practice asking each other, “How are we going to solve this one?” Emphasize to each other, “We need to be a team in facing this problem.” Notice how this attitude draws you together.

Teamwork works not only in the sports arena, but in relationships as well. Practice some of these tools and let me know how they work for you. I’d like to hear your opinions about teamwork in marriage.

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