Dreams within Conflict

The last two levels of The Sound Relationship House are inextricably linked. In the interest of avoiding great confusion, we want to clarify that Make Life Dreams Come True and Create Shared Meaning often overlap. Working together to make each other’s life dreams come true often involves creating shared meaning, and creating shared meaning can be achieved through identifying and pursuing your and your partner’s dreams.  We will begin by discussing how to uncover dreams that are hidden within conflict in your relationship.

Dr. Gottman’s research has helped him to discover something counter-intuitive: many of the seemingly pointless and frustrating issues that you find yourself constantly arguing about with your partner are anything but insignificant. In truth, they are rooted in your deepest and most meaningful dreams, hopes, and desires for your own life, as well as the life that you share together.

If the two of you feel that one another’s positions on these recurring problems are irrational, unreasonable, unnecessarily inflexible, or completely incomprehensible, you are likely to feel betrayed, disrespected, hurt, isolated, or generally detached from each other.  According to Dr. Gottman, getting trapped in gridlock often forces your experience of a conflict discussion through the following five stages:

1. Your dreams stand in opposition

2. Entrenchment of your opposing positions

3. Increased fears of accepting influence from your partner

4. Vilification (Four Horsemen)

5. Emotional disengagement from each other

All couples have areas in which they are faced with perpetual conflict. Understanding what lies beneath it will help you to end what has likely felt like an endlessly mystifying and increasingly painful and negative series of conversations. It will also help you to understand your partner. In Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. Gottman goes into far more depth on this topic (as well as many others!), sharing a number of examples that you can use in your own relationship conflicts to identify both your own and your partner’s dreams and avoid the confusion and misery that gridlocked conversations bring into your life. Here is one such example:

Potential Conflict:

Partner A: My partner is constantly trying to persuade me to accompany her to parties, to go out dancing, try new restaurants and bars, travel, go camping, hike. She’s driving me nuts. It’s crazy. I can’t live this way.

Partner B: My partner’s lifestyle is stifling me. He just wants to stay in and watch movies. I can barely get him off the couch. He doesn’t understand life. He doesn’t know how to live! I’m living in a cage! I want to be free.

Possible dreams within the conflict:

Partner A: My parents were in the military and we moved around a lot. I’ve never been able to have any sense of stability. I’ve never been able to relax. I’ve always been whisked about, from one town to another, living in what I guess must have been a permanent state of anxiety. Now that we’ve settled down in the city, and have steady jobs and a really good life, I feel so lucky… all I want to do is cuddle up in the living room with a book, make breakfast together, walk around our beautiful neighborhood, talk about anything and everything deep into the night with the person I love.

Partner B: I was raised in an incredibly stifling home. My parents worked all the time, and my siblings and I had to invent games to keep ourselves from drowning in boredom. We were lonely and isolated, and not allowed to go out and see our friends or play with the neighbors very often. When I got into high school, I finally had an escape. I got a car, had a boyfriend, we would go out to the one club in our small town at night and camp in the woods with our friends. It was wonderful. Now that I live in a big city, I want to live life the way I’ve always wanted.

Once you have identified the dreams that underlie the areas of conflict for each of you, your previously gridlocked conversation about the subject of disagreement can change radically. We hope that this example illustrates the idea of becoming a “Dream Detective,” a skill that is incredibly powerful for resolving gridlock with your partner.

For more examples and exercises of this nature, check out Dr. Gottman’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.