How To Resolve Conflict In Marriage

communication help Feb 08, 2024

Conflict in relationships is normal, and marriage is no exception. In fact, conflict is a good thing. When a relationship is without conflict it usually means someone has stopped trying and the relationship is severely broken. Trying to prevent conflict from showing up is simply not an option. What we can control is how we deal with issues as they arise. Our ability to manage conflict with our partner can make all the difference.

What is Conflict in Marriage?

Marital conflict could be defined as the state of tension or stress between spouses. Conflict can occur for many reasons. It can be the result of one partner, both, or neither person. Marital conflict can look like incompatible needs of couples, poor communication skills, distorted beliefs, unrealistic expectations, and extreme emotional reactions.

Conflict is inevitable in a marriage, or any long-term relationship. It’s simply what happens when two separate people come together each with their own ​​set of values, beliefs, and expectations. Therefore, it’s not about trying to avoid conflict. Rather, it’s how conflict is dealt with.

Why is it Important to Resolve Conflict?

When conflict isn’t dealt with directly, it doesn’t magically dissipate with time. Sure, there are bound to be times without conflict. At times might even appear as though it worked itself out. But that’s not the reality. Unresolved conflict will always come back to bite you, if not addressed properly.

When you decide to resolve conflict rather than run or hide from it, you benefit in several ways:

  • Resolving conflict leads to better communication and understanding between partners. And this increases intimacy.
  • Resolving conflict promotes emotional growth and empathy, which in turn strengthens the bond.
  • Resolving conflict prevents resentment and grudges from building up and damaging trust.

Managing vs Resolving

Relationship expert Dr. John Gottman found that 69% of what couples fight about are not solvable problems. They are perpetual conflicts that have to do with fundamental differences between couples such as differences in personality or needs that are fundamental to who they are. These are issues without resolution that the couple has likely been dealing with for a while. The couple may make some progress on the issue for a bit, but then the issue resurfaces, inescapably.

The couple may repeatedly come back to the same conversation in an attempt to “fix things”. However, trying to solve something unsolvable is counterproductive. So what is the answer? Coming together to communicate is always a good idea, and will prove productive as long as both partners can move past the need to eliminate the problem. Change your mindset to focus on conflict management instead.

Talk about the areas where you don’t line up. Avoid seeing those areas as a problem to fix, but as ways to compromise. Discussing the conflicts that perpetually arise is constructive in itself. You can make a plan on how to move forward with your differences in tow, or simply agree to disagree. According to Dr. Gottman, “You don’t have to resolve your major marital conflicts for your marriage to thrive.”

Types of Conflict

All marital conflicts can fall into one of two categories: those that can be resolved and those that cannot be resolved. Therefore the first step is figuring out if the problem is solvable or not.

Examples of solvable conflict:

  • One culprit

In this type of conflict, there is a clear person to blame. One spouse has done something to wrong the other. This is a black-and-white example where one person feels hurt by the other. It can be fixed if the culprit recognizes their wrongdoing, and apologizes. The other partner must be willing to accept and move on from that. Otherwise, it will be a perpetual issue.

  • House chores

When one partner believes there is an unfair division of labor, problems arise. This can be easily resolved when spouses come together to discuss why they feel the way they do and create action items that will lead to

Any issue previously viewed as solvable can become a perpetual problem if both partners aren’t willing to discuss the issue at hand in a reasonable way.

Examples of unsolvable or perpetual conflict:

  • Socialness

One partner is extroverted while the other is introverted. This is just one example of personality differences.

  • Difference in desires

One partner wants a monogamous relationship while the other is interested in pursuing ethical non-monagamous relationships. The issue boils down to a difference in relationship type preferences

  • Parenting style

You and your partner likely want the same things for your kids, but your approach may be different.

Financial matters

Differences in spending habits, saving goals, and financial priorities can lead to heated arguments because neither partner understands why spending or saving is so important (or not important) to the other person.

It’s important to note that a problem that is solvable for one couple may be unsolvable for a different couple. Figuring out if the issue is solvable or not, comes down to recognizing whether or not the issue keeps coming up. Is it resurfacing again because it hasn’t been addressed properly, or because there isn’t a solution? If the issue is deemed unsolvable it's time to move towards accepting your differences. Acceptance is crucial for removing barriers that keep you and your partner from growing your connection.

Tips to Resolve Conflict

For the problems that can be resolved, how you go about that process is critical. Even with good intentions, the wrong approach can cause a smaller issue to snowball. A new issue can arise from the original because of how someone was spoken to or dismissed. The new problem could be your tone of voice - disrespect, name-calling - contempt, or your silence - manipulation.

The very first step is to identify what the true issue is. The focus should be on one thing only. It’s not an opportunity to bring up other things from the past or you're reminded of something else that bothered you so you throw that into the mix. When there isn’t a single, clear focus, nothing will get resolved.

  • Use “I” statements

Instead of pointing fingers, starting every line with accusations. “You did this.” “You don’t…” “You are…” Make it about how you feel. How did their words or actions make you feel? Try “I feel…” and “I want…”. This will help your partner understand where you’re coming from and not force them to feel under attack.

  • Assume your partner has good intentions

Sometimes we forget that our partner is on our team. We can forget that they don’t enjoy conflict. They don’t want you to be upset. Remember that your partner is just that, your partner. You both want a happy, healthy relationship. To get that you have to work together, not against each other.

  • Up your listening game

Practice active listening. You can do this with your body. Face them completely while they talk. Make eye contact. Keep your posture open (uncrossed arms). Nod as they talk. Show that you’re interested and invested by asking questions both to get more information and to confirm that you’re understanding them correctly.

  • Stop playing defense

It can be hard not to get defensive when your partner shares a complaint about you. You may also be tempted to throw a complaint or negative comment back at them. Example: “You don’t clean the kitchen.” You don’t know what you’re talking about”. Hear them out fully, first. Ask questions.

  • Don’t get ugly

Never resort to contempt - name-calling, sarcasm, eye-rolling, and smirking. These things tell your partner you don’t respect them. In addition, they keep you from having a productive conversation. You’re likely to anger your partner as well, removing any chance of solving the issue.

  • Step into their shoes

In addition to listening to them, you need to try to see their perspective. If you can understand where they’re coming from, you’re less likely to get angry during conflict.

  • Avoid generalizations

Saying “You never…” and “You always…” can feel right to you when you feel like you’ve been unfairly treated, misunderstood, or unseen by your partner. But these are generalizations and a surefire way to put your partner on the defensive.

  • Inject humor

Make them laugh. Not because you want to distract or seem uncaring about the current issue, but because it can help relieve tension and remind you of why this is worth sorting out - you love and enjoy each other.

  • Read the room

Look for signs that one of you is getting overly upset, and suggest a break to calm down. Sometimes a 5 minute walk can prevent you from saying something hurtful or it can help you find the right words to explain how you feel.

When is Outside Help Necessary?

Dan Wile, the developer of Collaborative Couples Therapy, said a couple problem is really two problems: the problem itself and how partners talk or don't talk about it. If you’re struggling to effectively communicate, nothing can be resolved. Be mindful of how you fight with your spouse. Is it fair? Can you identify with the following? These are signs you might not be fighting fair:

  • During a fight, you see your partner as the enemy instead of your teammate
  • You speak in absolutes, like “always” and “never”
  • You resort to personal attacks like name-calling
  • You’re too focused on defending yourself to hear what your partner is saying
  • You make assumptions or tell your partner what they think or feel
  • You’re stuck on who’s right and who’s wrong instead of finding a solution

The Couples Center can help! We have a team of experienced therapists skilled in teaching you to manage conflict in a healthier way. Managing conflict with empathy, open communication, compromise and a shared commitment to the relationship can lead to a stronger, more resilient, and more fulfilling marriage.


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