Marriage Conflict Skills: Finding the Balance

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Marriage Conflict Skills: Finding the Balance

© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

This week is National Marriage week.

As the website says: “February 7th to 14th every year is a collaborative effort to encourage many diverse groups to strengthen individual marriages, reduce the divorce rate, and build a stronger marriage culture, which in turn helps curtail poverty and benefits children. Together we can make more impact than working alone.”

I agree with those who say that a committed partner relationship is one of the goals for human beings, if not THE top goal. We all want someone to understand us, care about us and share in our life plans. But how do we make this work in today’s society, which seems to undermine working together and reinforce individualism? I believe the key is in finding the balance of being of being an individual AND a couple – for the unique two of you. It isn’t about one “right” answer for everyone or every couple. Here are several skills that I believe help find this balance:

1. Understand the difference between relationship conflict skills and adversarial conflict skills.

Relationship conflict skills operate in a moderate emotional range which relationships can handle. Relationship disputes must take into account your needs as an individual AND the needs of the other person, so that you don’t blow away the relationship foundation in an effort to assert yourself – you really can have both. Unfortunately, our current entertainment-based culture reinforces the drama of adversarial conflict skills such as “looking out for number one” and blaming the other person when things go wrong. This seems to justify regularly yelling at the other person (and hitting in about 20% of couples), making disdainful remarks, giving the silent treatment, hiding important information, bad-mouthing your partner to others, etc.

But these behaviors are adversarial methods of dealing with conflict, which fail to take the relationship into account. These are the extremes that sit-coms, movies and politics demonstrate for us every day. Relationship conflict skills include saying you’re sorry, such as with repairing statements: “I’m sorry I just said that – I really do love you and respect you.” “Let’s not go to bed angry.” “I’m going to make more of an effort to fulfil the request you just made.” Listening and empathizing with the other person’s pain, even when we are feeling our own. Taking turns, turning toward the other person when they are talking, rather than away. These are relationship conflict skills.

2. Build a bank of goodwill.

John and Julia Gottman have studied the science of what makes a good marriage work. One of their conclusions is that happy and healthy marriages have approximately a 5 to 1 ratio of positive statements and experiences to negative ones. So happy couples that bicker a lot succeed because they have five times as many positive things to say and do together. They also found that couples that never seem to argue actually have negative interactions – but also about a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative. Don’t hesitate to make that extra positive comment out of the blue. “Did I ever tell you how much I love it when you do ________? “You’re so good at ___________.” “Thanks for just being you!”

3. Learn about acceptance.

Another surprising result of the Gottmans’ research is that approximately a third of conflicts never get resolved in healthy, long-term marriages. This is a great surprise to many spouses, therapists and dispute resolution professionals. But, in fact, a preoccupation with chronically unresolved conflicts tends to have a negative effect on the marriage – it builds frustration rather than focusing on the positive. There will be some habits that the other person simply will not change or cannot change. Expressing our point of view and hearing the other’s different point of view may be as far as we can get on some issues. Agreeing to disagree and accepting certain conflicts seems to be essential to a good marriage.

But, there is the flip side to acceptance: If you have been accepting unacceptable behavior in your marriage – such as domestic violence, chronic substance abuse, verbal abuse and other unhealthy relationship problems – then learning that there are limits to acceptance can be an important lesson. There may be a healthy marriage out there for you and it might not be this one. If you aren’t sure about the difference between healthy and unhealthy acceptance, see an individual or couples counselor. Learning about both sides of acceptance is a relationship conflict skill in itself. Most marriages can work – if you can create the proper balance.

I started doing divorce mediation over 30 years ago, when I helped two friends figure out a shared custody arrangement of their 8-year-old son. I don’t recommend being a divorce mediator for your friends, but this one worked out okay. Since then, I have been a divorce mediator for approximately 1100 couples. Recently, I have been reflecting on what I have learned about marriage from these experiences.

4. Really listen when you disagree.

I have found over and over again that unhappy couples don’t really listen to each other. Many of my mediation clients are good listeners, but their goals have become different, their ways of managing finances are seriously different, or they have drifted apart. But the most unhappy couples never learned how to really listen to each other. They both report a long history of this, before they decided to get a divorce.

One or both spouses eventually gave up trying to communicate. Instead, they have focused on how “correct” they are on various subjects and have tried to persuade or bully the other person to agree with them. As soon as one starts speaking, the other turns away. They both acknowledge that this has been going on for years. Yet research by John and Julia Gottman, the marriage researchers, indicates that “turning away” when your partner is sharing something important is the kiss of death for the relationship.

You don’t need to defend yourself or respond to everything that your partner says. It often can be sufficient to really look at your partner as he or she is talking, and to really listen without interrupting. Then, see if you can summarize what you have heard, before responding. This skill may save your marriage. If you and your partner aren’t sure how to do this, try couples counseling for a while.

5. Share common interest activities.

I have been truly amazed at how some couples have operated for years without sharing common interest activities. With our longer life-spans, it’s easy to have different interests develop for each person. Separate work, parenting, religious activities, educational activities, and the general division of labor in a marriage can lead to separate interests and friends. It’s okay – in fact, even great – to develop your own interests, so long as you also make a point of sharing some common interest activities. Do this even if it feels a little strange at first. Try out what each other suggests – you might find it is interesting. Otherwise, the connection of the relationship may slowly die without either of you realizing it at first, when something can be done about it.

6. Blame yourself first!

When things go wrong (as they will), don’t start in on your partner for their bad behavior, decisions, or values. Start with looking at what your part is in the problem. In my current divorce mediations, I’d say that about two-thirds are “low-conflict” couples, who take responsibility for problems and just no longer want to be married. For example, a recent couple (who have been married for close to 50 years) said they do better when they don’t live together – and they seemed to be very respectful of each other and able to solve problems quite constructively.

On the other hand, about one-third are “high-conflict” couples, who are preoccupied with how wrong the other person is. They usually reach agreements in mediation regarding parenting, monthly support and property division, but it takes them a lot longer and I am concerned that they will simply repeat the same pattern of blame in their future relationships. I often encourage people to get some individual counseling after they get divorced, so that they can look at their own patterns and how they might want to change them. Few of the high-conflict folks are interested in looking at themselves at all.


Bill Eddy headshotBILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high-conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic, developed methods for managing high-conflict disputes, and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries. He is also co-host of the popular podcast, It’s All Your Fault, and writes a popular blog on Psychology Today.

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