You’ve heard it all before, so I’m probably not telling you anything new. But in the interests of making sure you know the facts about marital (and long-term relationship) conflicts, I thought I’d say some of it again. This comes from the great self-help online book, Psychological Self-Help (the original one, not the bastardized version that appears elsewhere online).
Many researchers (e.g., Christensen & Jacobson, 2000) believe that most marital differences and arguments are completely reconcilable. The problem lies in the fact that as marriages and relationships degrade into argument, they discussions are laced with criticism and unspoken expectations of one another. We expect the other person in the relationship to change, not our expectations of them (even though we’re the ones making ourselves unhappy because of our unrealistic expectations). Here’s a simple example from the book:
If the wife feels that hubby never discloses his thoughts or feelings, she finds evidence of his withholding and withdrawing in most of their conversations. If he feels “she criticizes me all the time,” he sees more and more of her negativity in every interaction (and probably withdraws).
Instead of letting the situation escalate building more anger, Christensen & Jacobson ask the couple to consider a different alternative, namely, to learn to tolerate or accept the faults of the partner and their disappointment in the relationship, realizing (if it is true) that the partner’s trait that bugs the hell out of you is, in fact, a minor factor relative to the good aspects of the marriage.
In short, keep in mind that perfect relationships do not exist, so some weaknesses, faults, self-centeredness, disturbing attitudes or beliefs, or whatever will just have to be accepted in any relationship.
So how does Dr. Clay Tucker-Ladd, author of Psychological Self-Help, suggest couples work on resolving marital conflict?
Resolving Relationship Conflict
1. Emphasize the positive, de-emphasize the negative.
This doesn’t mean ignoring the negative, it just means stop harping on it, day in and day out. Nobody’s perfect and each and every one of us makes mistakes everyday. Are you the person that points out your significant other’s mistakes all the time? Or are you the person who points out all of the positive things in your partner’s life?
We have a choice: we can “understand” our partner or we can blame him/her. How we view and explain the other person’s behavior is crux of the emotional problem. And, how we explain or understand our situation, influences how we try to change those problems.
Happy couples tend to accentuate the partner’s good traits and motives as causes of his/her positive behavior; his/her negative behavior is seen as rare and unintentional or situational. The happy spouse, thereby, reinforces his/her partner’s good traits
2. Share your feelings and try to see your significant other’s point of view.
When people in a relationship get angry, one of the first things to go is communication. People shut down and protect themselves. If I start slinging verbal arrows at you, what is your automatic natural reaction? To put up a shield and start slinging back. Unfortunately, this is not an ideal method of communication.
Seething silence doesn’t help. Example: your spouse’s constant interruptions burn you up but eventually you stop talking or walk away instead of saying, “You’re interrupting” or “I’ll talk when you’ll listen.” Share your feelings (tactfully, as with “I feel…” statements). Don’t expect your partner to read your mind.
3. Say something to your partner or spouse at the time the problem occurs.
If you wait until “later” to talk about the problem or issue, we’re taking the emotion out of its context and meaning. It’s more difficult to talk about things later, especially for the person on the defensive because they may not even remember the situation or what was running through their minds when it occurred. And while this is not always possible, it should be the goal of both parties in the relationship. Always.
If you don’t talk about your feelings and thoughts, neither of you have a chance to correct the trouble-causing misunderstandings of the other. This self-protective approach (avoiding or stonewalling) becomes self-defeating. Men tend to avoid discussing their relationships. You must talk openly and calmly.
4. Make the first move.
Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Would you rather be right or happy?, that is the ultimate question you must ask yourself. You need to get used to the idea that you may sometimes have to sacrifice your feelings of being “right” in order to help the relationship.
Example: a couple goes to bed after an argument and both want to make up but he thinks, “She’s still mad; I’ll wait until she signals things are okay” and she thinks, “I’m not mad; I wish he’d reach out; he’s so stubborn and he’s not very affectionate; that makes me mad again.” You can make the first move!
Nobody wants to make the first move, and that’s why it’s important that you do so. It shows your desire to make-up and move on. (And you’ll be the bigger person for doing so!)
5. Healthy relationships require compromise on a regular basis. Ultimatums lead to divorce or break-up.
One of the biggest misunderstandings of naive relationships is that one doesn’t have to change in order to make the relationship work. Compromise is as important an ingredient to a successful relationship as love or sexual attraction is. All too often it’s not only overlooked, it’s dismissed as a weakness — “If I compromise, he’s asking me to be someone I’m not.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
Compromise shows wisdom and experience — that expecting only the other person to make all the changes in the relationship is unrealistic and simplistic.
Finally, the worst way to try to change a partner is to say, “You have to change….or else!” The change demanded (“stop spending all your time with those people”) may not be the change wanted (“show you love me “). Besides, ultimatums are resisted. Understanding the reasons, the meaning behind the demand for change, will facilitate change.
Example: nagging your spouse to clean out the sink and put the cap back on the toothpaste tube isn’t likely to work, but he/she may change if you honestly explain that the messy toothpaste tube by the dirty sink reminds you of your drunken, abusive, sloppy father who made you clean the bathroom after he vomited. People who understand each other accommodate each other better. Changes are needed in both spouses, not just one.
If you’re interested in reading more on this topic, I highly recommend Psychological Self-Help’s Chapter 10: Dating, Love, Marriage and Sex.
Christensen, A. & Jacobson, N. S. (2000). Reconcilable differences. New York: Guilford Press.
Tucker-Ladd, C. (1997). Psychological Self-Help. Online: http://psychologicalselfhelp.org/