Conflict Management in Marriage

by Nick Steffen, LMHC, Pastoral & Clinical Counselor

Drs. John and Julie Gottman, a couple who happen to be some of the foremost relationship researchers today, discovered that 69% of all conflict is perpetual. Most of the conflict couples experience comes back again and again over the course of their relationship. This doesn’t merely represent relationships falling apart in the Gottmans’ counseling offices, but all of the relationships they studied. As Christians, this may not surprise us, knowing as we do the depth of the rupture running right through the heart of this world. Or perhaps this statistic bristles against our expectation that God’s love should smooth out these difficulties for us and thus conflict represents some kind of failure to live up to our calling as Christians.

Before continuing, I should probably describe what I mean by conflict, a term I may use more broadly than some. Relational conflict is essentially difference with stakes. When people enter relationships, they inevitably bring their stories, their bodies, their baggage, their thoughts and emotions, wishes and dreams, even their other relationships, with them. I recall being told years ago that when you marry your spouse, you marry their family. When I first heard this cliche, I understood it in a rather literal way, essentially saying that marriage joins us with our spouse’s family and all of the requisite needs, events, and future drama. But reflection has revealed to me the deeper meaning: that our spouse carries within their thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and relational bonds the imprints and lives of their attachment history.

The myth that good Christians don’t disagree shows up more commonly in new couples, themselves often firmly ensconced in the fever dreams of limerence. When relationships are young, the intense curiosity and playfulness we often find tends to smooth out the rougher edges of any particular conflict that arises. A comment about our partner’s parent that years later might wound our partner deeply, may be initially set aside with a wave of the hand. The differences we encounter in new relationships are fun.

This may feel intuitive to many ex pats, who may recall both the exhilaration and excitement of encountering new places and culture, only to find those very same points of friction transformed into stressors after moving to there.

So what gets in our way? How is it that we find ourselves responding so intensely about which is the right way to load the dishwasher? Or perhaps your conflict concerns which Christmas presents are appropriate for your children? Or perhaps which in-laws get more time? Or how much to spend on dinner? How is it that differences that may have appeared silly or irrelevant at times in the past now seem to get the kind of attention accorded to official summit meetings between heads of state?

My suggestion is that it is our stories that get in the way.

When couples argue about money, they’re almost never arguing about mere currency calculations. No, when couples argue about money, they’re really arguing about what it means to them to be responsible, or to show love to others, or to be healthy, or to honor those who gave the money, or perhaps to be just, when so many others are in want. These latter conversations are not about calculations, they are about values and philosophies, they are about family traditions and rituals, they are simply about the things that carry meaning in our lives. They are about our stories.

So what happens when people who have different definitions of “money” try to talk about it? They find themselves quickly stuck in a conversation that they do not understand. What seem like simple questions betray criticism. Why does my partner want to be so irresponsible with money? Why is my partner so uncaring? What’s wrong with them? I often suggest that my clients consider whether or not their “why” questions are honest. Is there an answer the other person could plausibly give that would satisfy you, that would make you feel like now you truly understand? When I ask my daughter “why are you doing that”, I am most often not truly asking. What I’m really trying to do is say “stop doing that and think about it so you come to understand why I don’t want you to do that”. These are not honest questions.

How do we get a little closer to honest curiosity? One exercise we use is called the Gottman-Rapaport intervention and it looks a little like this.

  1. Be mindful: we must be honest with ourselves about where we’re coming from. Identify clearly what it is you’re feeling and what it is you really want. Look underneath your position and consider what is the deeper longing you want your partner to get.
  2. Be clear and kind: when we’re sharing our perspective, spend more energy focusing on your heart than you do on your partner’s behaviors. Additionally, do not presume to describe their intentions or perspective for them. And avoid using terms like “always” or “never”. Absolute descriptions of patterns like this are simply ways of sneaking in criticism.
  3. Be open: when listening to the other person, try to set aside your own agenda in order to honestly listen to their perspective. Ask open ended questions. If you think you understand something, ask them if your understanding of their perspective is correct.
  4. Be affirming: always look for opportunities to validate what they’re sharing. Look for chances to say “yes”, to remind them that their perspective, however different from and even contrary to your own, is worthwhile, is meaningful, and that you can stand with them in that meaning.

Our conflicts are essentially just differences that matter to us. We know that the differences will never completely fall away. The hubris to rid our relationships of difference is our way of trying to rid ourselves of others. 69% of all conflict is perpetual simply because we go on being us.

But I would like to offer just one thought further. While there may be moments when we think we’ve plumbed our identities, we are ourselves, living, growing, changing people ever containing the potential of surprise. While we are never less than who we are today, we are always more. God’s gracious creativity continually moves ever beyond the horizons that seem to dance ahead of us. We’re never done making meaning of what God has given us, for his meaning is never exhausted. We will never fully plumb the person beside us, just as we will continue to find ever fresh mysteries in our own hearts as well.

So what do we do with these differences? Be a little more gracious, to yourself and to each other.

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