Some time ago I was listening to a lecture about marriage and the speaker made some bold claims. He was suggesting that couples avoid conflict in their relationship. This got my attention. He went on to say that couples could eliminate serious conflict from their relationship if both partners worked together toward this end. To illustrate his point, he used the example of a couple he knew who, by their own admission, had never had a serious argument or disagreement in the 30 years of their marriage. After filling in some of the details, the speaker capped off his comments by saying, “I know some of you may think that 30 years of marriage without a serious conflict is hard to believe, but it is the truth.”
As I sat in the audience, I was one of those people having a hard time believing that tale. I’ve been counseling couples for over 25 years and have yet to meet two married people who are that perfect. In my experience, virtually all couples, including my own marriage, face many tough challenges to keep their relationship fresh and vibrant and these challenges inevitably include arguments, conflicts and disagreements along the way.
So, after the lecture ended, I decided to privately engage the speaker for a few minutes to learn more how couples could be so perfectly charming with each other. I started with a statement followed by a question: “I think I understand your purpose. You are trying to encourage couples to focus more on getting along than what they disagree on, right?” He nodded. “But, don’t you think that encouraging couples to eliminate conflict in their relationship is sending the wrong message?” He didn’t seem to understand. I went on. “Conflict is not necessarily bad. It can be destructive and hurtful, but it can also be a wonderful way to strengthen a relationship if handled in a mature way.” He listened politely but believed strongly that avoiding conflict is preferable to effective conflict resolution. We parted agreeing to disagree.
I share that story because too many couples secretly believe what this speaker was saying: that the best marriages don’t experience much conflict. But, this is not true. The real test of a strong and secure marriage is not whether you can avoid conflict but how you go about addressing it and repairing the possible injury that may result. Conflict in a marriage is not only inevitable but should be expected.
The main problem with conflict in a marriage is not that we are at odds with each other but rather the way we go about trying to resolve it. Here are the three most common and ineffective ways conflict is handled in marriages:
Many couples approach conflict like swashbuckling musketeers, their words slashing at each other like swords. It is a contest where one person wins and the other loses. But, in fact, both lose partners lose in this approach to conflict resolution. Intimacy can never be nurtured in the relationship where one person comes out as victor. At best, this approach ends in a stalemate with each person feeling as though the other doesn’t understand them. At worst, the relationship is injured and resentment builds.
2. Subtle hints
This approach is used as a passive way to sidestep the potential explosiveness of a contentious issue. Hints are usually couched in humor or sarcasm as a way to let your spouse know that you are unhappy, angry or wanting something from them – like an apology. Unfortunately, this indirect way of dealing with conflict usually heightens negative feelings because it inevitably leads to lots of miscommunication and misinterpretation of motives.
The “elephant in the room” analogy plays well in this approach. Neither partner is willing to honestly acknowledge the problem or address it. The assumption behind this approach is that talking about the problem will cause an argument. So, it’s better to let time pass and hopefully it will cease to be an issue. Unfortunately, the emotion associated with unresolved conflicts tend to accrue over time and this only sets you up for more explosive conflict later on.
So, how could conflict be handled in a more mature, relationship-enhancing way?