Marriage Conflict Skills Pt. 1: 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’s three skills that I believe help find this balance:

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.

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!”

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.

[My next blog will be on what I’ve learned about marriage from doing divorce mediation for thirty years.]

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.