Disagreements and arguments crop up in even the best marriages. It's how conflict is handled that is an important key to marital success or failure.
Current research confirms that poorly handled conflict between married couples can negatively influence mental, physical, and family health. Feelings of anger, bitterness, and unhappiness (sometimes leading to separation and divorce) often result.
But couples need not settle for these experiences. Partners can realize, as stated in The Family: A Proclamation to the World, that "marriage between a man and woman is ordained of God" (¶ 1) and that successful and happy marriages "are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities" (¶ 7). Such principles, coupled with an understanding of what conflict is, how to recognize it, and how best to manage it, can help spouses use marriage challenges to build rather than harm their relationship.
When people hear the word conflict, they often picture something very negative, such as fighting, arguing, bitterness, and anger. However, current research suggests that conflict by nature isn't negative at all. It is fundamentally the experience of difference between married couples.
For example, magnets work according to opposite forces. One side is positive, the other negative. In this instance, the terms "positive" and "negative" are not synonymous with "good" and "bad." They merely identify two different - but complementary - forces. In the same way, couples benefit when they learn to understand conflict as fundamentally difference. Just because couples experience conflict doesn't mean they don't love each other. Dealing with differences in opinions, goals, interests, desires, and so on, is a normal part of any marriage relationship. What matters is how couples handle these differences. In a successful relationship, couples work together to deal with their differences rather than walking away and seeking "greener pastures."
One of the best things you can do for your marriage is to learn to handle conflicts and disagreements constructively. Here are some ideas for helping you to do just that:
- Check for Destructive Interaction Patterns. According to marriage and family professionals, there are many interaction patterns that can harm a marriage and make dealing with differences and disagreements very difficult. Look over the following list and ask yourself how often they occur when you are having a disagreement. Make your evaluation alone, and then share your notes with your spouse. Resolve together to eliminate that pattern from your relationship.
- Harsh Start-ups Frequently getting started on the wrong foot
- Criticism Complaints with the intent to attack another person's character
- Contempt Criticism conveying disgust
- Invalidation Being made to feel - or making another feel - devalued, not cared about, or put down
- Defensiveness Counterattacking a partner's character, reflecting blame
- Escalation Battling each other in a vicious cycle that spirals out of control
- Stonewalling Withdrawing or "pulling out" with no intent to return, disengaging
- Flooding Being overwhelmed by criticism, contempt, etc.
- Negative Interpretations Viewing motives of a partner as "out to get you" or harmful
- The Body's Language Overwhelming physical responses to "stress-full" interaction such as increased heart rate, tremors, anxiety, etc.
- Failed Repair Attempts Missed attempts to put the brakes on or "head-off" harmful communication
- Bad Memories Looking back on the relationship and seeing the "good gone bad" or good simply gone
- Hold Regular Couple Councils. Few couples regularly talk about relationship concerns, so what began as small issues become larger problems that threaten to destroy a relationship. Couples can use councils to nip problems in the bud. Here's how.
- First, plan a specific time and place each week when you and your spouse can talk alone together for at least 30-60 minutes without distractions or interruptions. No TV. No telephone. No kids. For one couple, the time that works best is 8:30 on Sunday evenings, after their children have gone to bed (or at least have gone to their rooms for the night!). Another time may be better for you. Carving out immutable time for the upkeep of your relationship is a tangible way to give your marriage high priority. Use the meeting to take stock of how the relationship is going and to discuss problems.
- Discuss a Problem Fully Before Trying To Solve It. When focusing on a problem, couples should first have a full and open discussion about it and understand one another's point of view before trying to solve a problem.
- During this time, define together what the problem is, your own part in the problem, and how earlier attempts at dealing with it have proved unsuccessful. Use "I-statements" to express concerns ("I was upset when you forgot our date last week") and make two or three statements before the listener paraphrases what they heard. When listening, focus on the speaker's message and paraphrase what you heard the speaker saying, without rebuttal ("It upset you that I spaced out our date"). Make sure you are both satisfied that you have been heard and understood.
- Move On To Solving the Problem, If Necessary. Experts say that about seventy percent of couple issues don't need to be solved, just well discussed. You may find that simply airing a concern is all you need to do. But if your problem needs solving, here is an approach to follow: One couple decided they wanted to find a way to boost the family income. During brainstorming, they listed as many ideas as they could to address this need, from one or both partners getting a part-time job, to taking a budgeting class. They discussed and evaluated these possible solutions. They decided that one of them would get a part-time job and selected a date during a couple council to discuss how the solution was going.
- Set the agenda. Identify the problem or portion of the problem that needs to be solved
- Brainstorm. Think of as many strategies as you can (say, ten) for solving the problem. Write them down so you can review them together.
- Discuss and evaluate. Look over the strategies and discuss the pros and cons of each one.
- Choose a strategy. Select one of the strategies to try out, one you both feel good about.
- Agreement. Agree on what each of you will do to help carry out the solution.
- Follow-up. Set a time to follow up on how things are going.
When couples use techniques such as these, combined with a deep desire to love and nurture their partner, they are less likely to fall into destructive communication patterns that harm marriages. Important issues get discussed.
For more information on dealing with conflict in marriage, check out Fighting for Your Marriage by Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, and Susan Blumberg, and The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman.
Written by Trampas J. Rowden, Graduate Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.