My wife and I can't seem to agree on how many children to have. She wants more children and I think our family is just the right size. This is the only area in our marriage where we lock up and can't move forward. Any thoughts on how to get past this issue?
Getting stuck on certain issues isn't reserved exclusively for bad marriages. Every marriage is likely to encounter some form of gridlock around issues relating to kids, money, extended family, sexual intimacy, parenting, and so on. This doesn't mean that there is something wrong with the marriage, per se. Instead, think of it as an opportunity to deepen your understanding of one another.
In the day-to-day flow of marriage and family life, think of how many decisions are made that seem to go smoothly. You give on this and she gives on that. You don't want this, she wants that. These interactions are often done with the finesse of a professional ballroom dance team. The moves are often so fluid that you don't even realize how much give-and-take happens on a regular basis.
However, there are some situations where you move one way and she wants to move another. This is what's happened with your discussion about the size of your family. It's time to stop "dancing" for a moment and step back to look at each person's position and response.
The reason you're stuck on this has a lot to do with what this issue means to each of you. You both care about it equally. Otherwise, the least-interested partner would give way and the dance would continue. This is where it's critical to find out why you both feel so strongly about this.
The passionate feelings about this particular issue aren't going to be resolved with some quick negotiating ("Okay, if we have one more kid, then I get to have every-other Saturday playing golf with the guys"). It wouldn't be long before the real feelings about the issue would surface and resentment would follow.
Instead, try starting a conversation that gets to the heart of the matter. Ask questions like, "What does this mean to you?", or "is there a story behind this for you?", or "does this relate to your history in some way?"
John Gottman, a prominent marriage researcher, calls this conversation "honoring dreams within conflict." He has found that these core gridlocked issues usually have some deeper meaning to them for each partner. To give up on this issue is to give up on something core to that person. It's as if they would betray themselves by giving in to their partner's wish.
So, instead of trying to get your partner to go with your preference, it's vital to change the way you talk about the issue by slowing down and starting a new conversation. The goal of the new conversation is to simply understand why this is so strong and meaningful for your partner.
When the couple can hear and understand each other in this way, the issue starts to become easier to talk about, and, ultimately solve. Please note that not all issues will be resolved perfectly, however, couples can feel closer and more understood, which is the ultimate objective of a healthy marriage.
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, UT. Please send questions for future columns to: [email protected]. Geoff maintains a blog and article archive at www.geoffsteurer.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/geoffsteurer.