A marriage relationship, by definition, involves challenges. It is a mixture of two different people into one unit, and this is tricky because each person has unique preferences, backgrounds, biases, and values. When partners connect, they will create interesting combinations—some exciting, and others aggravating. For example, I once met professionally with a couple we will call "Dave" and "Lily." Dave was a welder who met Lily online. She was a guidance counselor, and he loved her sense of humor and zeal to help others. Lily was drawn to Dave’s calm steadiness and work ethic. Eventually, they married, but over time Dave grew weary of Lily’s “shrieking” and her constant sacrificing of her time and money in reaching out to the less-fortunate. “Her M.S.W. does not stand for masters of social work,” Dave said, “but for ‘must save the world.’” Lily became annoyed at Dave’s “stoicism” and refusal to support her efforts or discuss his feelings.
Each came to realize the strengths they admired in each other also contained the traits they resented. Eventually, they learned to accept their unique combination. “Both of us have been married before,” Lily said, “But we had to stop comparing our current problems to past successes. We have gotten better at accepting each other’s quirks and talking about them.” Dave agreed: “I hate conflict, but if I avoid the awkward conversation, it usually comes back to bite me later.”
If something isn’t right, it may need to be dealt with. But that does not mean it must be tackled with force and anger. Conflict need not be combat. As Lily and Dave learned, differences are not the problem, but the way those differences are dealt with can become a problem if couples are not careful. Here are four suggestions on how to talk about those tricky issues and deal constructively with the natural conflict that occurs in every marriage.
Harvard professor Richard Hackman studies conflict and suggests people should accept it. “Go toward the conflict” he says, because if you avoid it, conflict comes back later in other, less helpful ways.1 Some couples fear the tension that different opinions can generate, but although avoidance may feel better in the short term, frustrations that are pushed aside pile up and cause resentment.
Researchers have also found when couples avoid discussing differences, they are not engaging with the things that really matter. Specifically, when couples avoid talking about money, religion, children, and in-laws, they are less happy over time, and that is particularly true for women.2 Be intentional and calm, but have the courage to acknowledge challenges.
Accept Your Differences
When you get annoyed by relationship conflict, it is natural to feel sorry for yourself and wish that things were different. This is normal but also immature. Don’t feel ripped off when you have challenges, or mistakenly believe that you should be exempt from relationship problems that are universal. When a spouse complains about reality, he or she is adding a new problem to the existing one by resenting something that is not likely to change.
In fact, only 31 percent of the conversations couples have are about resolvable issues, according to research by Dr. John Gottman. This means that 69 percent of the challenges couples bump up against will be ongoing, including personality differences and styles.3 For example, Dave will always be fussy about how his bathroom is cleaned, and Lily will always prefer going out on Friday nights. This does not mean they can’t find workable compromises; it just suggests that trying to remake each other into different people won’t work.
Have a Voice
If you avoid speaking up about your feelings because it is stressful, it sends a message to yourself and your partner that your opinions and feelings are not worth much. Dave bottled up feelings, but this meant he was not contributing to the relationship and often gave up control of the interaction to Lily, resulting in a lopsided and frustrating experience for both. He would get angry, turn inward and blame himself, which led to unhappiness. In this way, conflict avoidance became a kind of dishonesty, where Dave would claim that things were “fine,” when they clearly weren’t. A relationship needs two voices to be full and enriching.
This doesn’t mean every difference or aggravation needs to be brought up. Sometimes concerns in the moment will fade quickly and become non-issues by the next day. Over time and through counseling, Dave and Lily learned to let go of small issues but to bring the important ones to the table if they were persisting and causing negative vibes between them.
Respect Both Sides
An argument can burst the bubble of a formerly-floating couple and plummet them back to earth. We are all sensitive, and no one likes to be criticized or demeaned. So, how can couples engage with conflict and not do damage, but move the relationship forward? The key is to allow your partner to have a voice and vice versa and to remain respectful. This is best achieved when things are calm, and both partners speak and listen. Sometimes, expressing and hearing differences will be all that is needed, and sometimes it is all that can be done. Other times, this will lead to ideas about compromise or new solutions. When both parties are open and kind, they draw closer together by hearing each other’s desires.
It is also important to be fair and not exaggerate or get defensive. If you are both getting angry, the conversation may escalate and turn damaging. If this happens, each partner needs to step back, calm down, and restart later when both partners can treat each other in a more fair manner. One study found that when partners revisited a difficult argument but tried to describe it in a neutral or even positive way, they felt better about it later, and the negative emotions about it decreased.4 Try to give your husband or wife the benefit of the doubt, and avoid distorting or misrepresenting his or her views.
Dave and Lily had a lot of differences, but they learned to compromise and respect each other’s needs. Dave liked to have a clean house to relax in, but Lily was more free-wheeling and loose. “Why make the beds,” she reasoned, “when we are just going to get back in them anyway?” Dave agreed they didn’t need to keep the whole house clean, but he did request that the bedroom, "his sanctuary," remain tidy.
“I am whipped after work,” he said, “so I like to come home and lay on the bed, check my NASCAR scores, and recover for a few minutes.” Lily agreed to make the bedroom a priority, and Dave agreed to not be cranky when he came home tired. They heard each other out, showed patience, and grew stronger together—not in spite of their differences, but because of them.
Jason B. Whiting, Ph.D., LMFT is a Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at Texas Tech University. He researches deception, communication, and abuse in relationships and is the author of the upcoming book Love Me True: Overcoming the Surprising Ways We Deceive in Relationships (2016). For more information visit drjasonwhiting.com.
1. J. Richard Hackman, Collaborative intelligence: Using teams to solve hard problems, (Berrit-Koeller, 2011).
2. Terri L. Orbuch, Five Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great, (River Grove Books, 2015).
3. John M. Gottman, The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples, (New York: WW Norton & Company, 2011).
4. E.J. Finkel, et al., "A Brief Intervention to Promote Conflict Reappraisal Preserves Marital Quality Over Time," Psychological Science, 24, no. 8 (2013):1595-1601.