As I pointed out previously, some disagreements can have clear right/wrong answers; if one spouse wants to quit his or her job to be a full time videogame-playing couch potato or to expand their sexual repertoire to include the neighbors, then the other spouse can quite rightly claim a moral high ground. But when a couple is trying to live righteously and considerately of each other, the greatest disagreements can come from matters in the following or other categories in which one preference is as “right” as the other. Knowing that there can be equally defensible alternatives, especially before a couple has any specific disagreement in those areas, can help defuse tension and lead to a solution. Here are some common subject areas in which both A and B can be right:
Finances. Even within the bounds of responsible financial management, there can be different opinions. Who should balance the checkbook and make sure the bills are paid, or should you both do it? Should you have separate or combined bank accounts? Is there a threshold above which one spouse should not spend unilaterally, without counseling together beforehand? Should each spouse have an “allowance” of spending money, or should every penny be accounted for? If either or both partners are still pursuing education, should they pursue their degree at full speed and live very frugally for a number of years, or take some time off school to work full time and gain a cushion? Church leaders have constantly cautioned for the past century against frivolous or needless debt, counseling Church members only to go into necessary debt — but each person brings his own definition of “necessary.”
Entertainment. A married couple should enjoy spending time together, but what if their ideas of “fun” are divergent? What if one spouse habitually spends far more hours in recreation than the other (either active, such as exercise or sports, or passive, such as broadcast sports, television or videogames) and the non-indulging spouse feels resentful? What if one spouse simply enjoys something that the other does not? How much time apart in their individual entertainment pursuits can their marriage withstand without showing stress because of time not spent together? (Entertainment can also blend into finance, if the activities one spouse prefers cost money that the other feels should be allocated elsewhere.)
Togetherness. This category is the twin of entertainment: how much time do husband and wife expect to spend together? Typically (though obviously not necessarily), men prefer to spend more time in solo, non-social pursuits than women; is there a happy medium at which the man won’t think his wife is being to “clingy” and the woman won’t think her husband is being “cold?” How about outside friendships, especially those which pre-exist the marriage: does the husband or wife spend time with “the gang” of same-sex friends that the spouse resents? (It should go without saying that neither husband nor wife should have opposite-gender friendships from which his or her spouse is excluded.)
Childrearing. This is such a common source of tension and outright conflict that dealing with it in a single paragraph seems almost to trivialize it. Do the husband and wife — the father and mother — have the same ideas regarding boundaries of behavior, freedom vs. safety, rules and punishment, family responsibilities and privileges, exposure to media, etc.? Will the lenient parent and the strict parent present a unified front to their children so that the children can expect consistency and order in their family rules? Will both parents participate fully in being parents, even if employment responsibilities differ? For that matter, have they decided before children are born what how they will structure employment during the children’s formative years?
Sex. You can almost transplant my paragraph from the post on sources of difference right here. In addition: Thanks both to a Puritanical strain in American religion (to which Mormon culture is not immune) which equates all pleasure with sin, and to some of the kneejerk reactions against the coarsening of popular culture and the widespread weakening of sexual boundaries and standards in society at large, Mormons along with other Christians absorb contradictory messages about sex, both consciously and inadvertently taught to them. Sex is characterized as (a) a holy act, (b) something to be embarrassed about, (c) a woman’s duty in order to bear children, (d) a forbidden subject you need to spend the years from puberty to marriage not thinking about, (e) something that’ll just “come naturally” so no one needs to teach you about it, (f) only “righteous” and “pure” within certainly vaguely indicated bounds. And that’s just within the Church! Add in the self-contradictory philosophies of the world which encompass both “casual sex” and “the right to sexual fulfillment” and the imagery of sex-for-entertainment that are virtually unavoidable in modern society, and it’s no wonder that husband and wife often come to their marriage bed each with a mess of unexamined and mutually exclusive ideas about what their sexual relationship is supposed to be. (Or as one wit has put it, young men and women can come out of the Church’s youth programs with the idea that “sex is shameful and wicked and should only be engaged in with your eternal companion.”)
Given that the prophets have stated that the joy and intimacy of husband and wife is at least as important as procreation as one of the God-ordained purposes of marital sex, I don’t think that one needs to worry overmuch about the “appropriateness” of various sexual practices, so long as they don’t involve fantasies of adultery or abuse. But it can take a while for a newlywed, just introduced to the whole idea of intimacy, to feel comfortable with even bread-and-butter sex, much less anything more “exotic.” There is an idea known as “sinning against conscience,” which is simply that it can be damaging to one’s spiritual health to engage in practices which, deep down, one feels are sinful, even if they are not technically sins. (As an example, an LDS convert from Judaism may know intellectually that the Lord does not require him to keep kosher, but may still feel uncomfortable eating pork, having associated that stricture with faithfulness for years. If eating bacon makes him feel less worthy of God’s love and approval, he shouldn’t feel obligated to eat it. Plus, more for me!) The bottom line in these circumstances is that spouses should be sensitive to each other’s feelings and deep-seated reactions, and never turn sex into something about which one or the other feels uncomfortable.
Next: Resolving difference