Conflict in Marriage: Is This Normal?

July 8th, 2011

When my husband and I took a marriage prep class before we got married, probably one of the most influential concepts we talked about was conflict management. I’m going to be honest. I can be a pistol! But when we talked about the best ways (and harmful ways) to deal with conflict it really taught me a lot.

Many studies have shown that the difference between marriages that succeed and those that don’t is not how many differences couples have, but instead it is the way those differences are handled. All couples are going to come across some kind of conflict in their relationship. Relationships are bringing together two different people with two different backgrounds and sometimes two different perspectives in life. There are bound to be differences! In fact, it is normal to have differences and they can be a sign of a healthy marriage. Differences can even be an important stepping stone to increase intimacy and closeness in the relationship.Almost 70% of the problems couples have can be labeled as “perpetual problems” which means they never fully get resolved. Examples of these are: household chores, finances, and parenting styles. Just yesterday, my husband and I had a disagreement over whose turn it was to mop. I felt like it was his turn to mop since I did it last. However, he felt he already did a large part of the housework that day and thought it should be my turn. We eventually figured it out (I mopped) and things are back to normal until the next time we have to decide who does what chore.

The key to overcoming these perpetual problems is to keep them in perspective, have a long-term view of the relationship, and honor your commitments. Some of these problems fade away over time while others we just learn to work around or tolerate.

Of course, we don’t just accept and try to live with every problem we encounter in our relationships. We should try to resolve them, and doing so can lead to some conflict. There is no way around that. In one class, I learned that the major pattern of marital conflict is depicted like this:

The most important part of this cycle is how couples manage their conflict. Dr. John Gottman, in his extensive research studying couple conflict, identified four types of negative conflict management styles. He called them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling. (We will talk about each of these individually in later posts, so stay tuned!)

Three important questions to ask yourself during an argument are: “Do we stay focused on resolving the problem?” “Do we manage our emotions during conflict?” “Do we maintain respect and concern for one another?” If you can answer yes to each of these, Congratulations!  You are probably not using one of these four, destructive conflict management styles.

The ideal style of conflict resolution is the collaborative style, which is high in assertiveness—that is, being clear about your feelings and desires—but also high in cooperation with concern for both yourself and spouse. It is about solving problems and strengthening the relationship more than it is about winning the argument and being right. Couples who show these characteristics during conflict are able to come out stronger, even if they don’t completely resolve the problem at that time.