My husband and I waited eagerly in our seats for the marriage-enrichment event at a local church to begin. The topic of the seminar, which was led by a couple married more than 20 years, was how to handle marital conflict. After years of having the same old arguments, we thought it would be a good idea to hear some sage advice.
Unfortunately, the evening did not go the way we expected. The presenting couple opened the session by announcing they’d never had “any real conflict” in their marriage. Smiling at her husband, the wife added, “Honestly, we’ve never really argued much at all!”
My husband and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes. Ultimately, we left the seminar with the impression that conflict in marriage is abnormal, or, worse, a sign of a marriage on the brink. I couldn’t help but think about the recurring arguments we have in our marriage—over housework (and who does more), money, and even how to parent our kids. How could we ever rise to the standard of “conflict-free perfection” the presenting couple had given us?
To get some answers to these questions, I asked Jason Whiting, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist and a professor at Texas Tech University, to weigh in on marital conflict. Dr. Whiting reassured me, “Conflict in marriage is inevitable,” adding that, “It’s true that some couples handle conflict better than others, but to suggest that there will never be conflict in a marriage is just not realistic.”
“A relationship, by its very definition, is two different people coming together from different backgrounds and with different beliefs and experiences,” he noted. “So you’re going to bump up against each other sometimes, and that is perfectly normal.”
I asked Dr. Whiting, who is the author of a new book, Love Me True: Overcoming the Surprising Ways We Deceive in Relationships, to share some tips on how to deal with marital conflict—especially the perpetual problems—and he offered the following suggestions:
01. Don’t run from conflict but go toward it.
Whiting doesn’t mean that we should have a shouting match every time there is a problem, but that we should’t run away from them either. How to think about marital conflict—especially those little (or big) arguments that never seem to go away—is a real challenge for my husband and I. Since both our parents divorced when we were young, we don't have examples of how a married couple should handle conflict. My husband’s first inclination is to completely withdraw or shut down to avoid a confrontation. I’m the complete opposite and want to get it all out in the open immediately—and often at the worst times, like when he is nearly asleep!
“Talk about differences, don’t avoid them or sweep them under the rug,” Whiting explains. “Avoidance is its own problem in a relationship. So definitely talk about things that bother you.”
By the same token, it’s also important to pay attention to timing when it comes to dialoguing. Whiting advised avoiding times when either partner is tired, or angry, or when the argument seems to be escalating. It is better to postpone further discussion about the problem to another time or day if possible. Turns out the old adage “never go to bed angry” may need a closer look before you honor it too closely.
02. Be respectful and willing to hear your partner out.
“You do not have to agree about everything to be in a good marriage,” Dr. Whiting said. “You just have to know how to handle those differences or disagreements in a healthy way.” So listen to each other, try not to interrupt (something I struggle with), and try to make your partner feel valued and heard.
Echoing Dr. Whiting's advice, renowned marriage therapist Dr. John Gottman argues that couples can have these perpetual arguments in marriage, but still be happily married—if they are able to dialogue about these problems in a constructive manner.
03. Be willing to compromise/meet each other half way.
“It’s a bad sign if you can’t hear each other out, or if one person always has to have his or her own way,” Dr. Whiting explained. He suggests stepping back and taking a more “neutral perspective” where you try to see other person’s side of things in an attempt to find “middle ground.” My husband and I recently had to do this over the issue of where to spend the Thanksgiving holiday, which can be a recurring source of conflict in our house. I wanted to travel and be with family this year, and he did not (he prefers just us). We compromised by inviting some of our family to come visit us, so I get the family time, and he gets to be at home, where he feels more comfortable.
04. Don't blame your differences, per se.
One final point that Dr. Whiting made really stuck with me: “Differences in a marriage are not the problem,” he said. “It’s how a couple handles those differences that matters and determines the relationship’s success.” For me, the take-away is that conflict is marriage is normal, and it is possible to be in an imperfect-yet-happy marriage where you and your partners sometimes disagree (even strongly), and even over issues that can’t necessarily be resolved. What matters most is how we deal with these conflicts and that we deal with them together.
Photo Credit: BOM Photography