A healthy marriage will include conflict.

Just let that title sink in. Healthy marriage…with conflict. Yep, that’s what I said!

Now maybe you’re someone who tries to avoid conflict. You might be wondering if I’m describing conflict as a good thing. I am, assuming we are talking about healthy conflict. Instead of avoiding conflict, maybe your marriage might grow by making space for it and using it well. You might want to say that “conflict can’t be healthy if we’re called to be people of peace”. I would certainly agree with the pursuit of peace making. Note the difference between peace keeping (avoiding conflict) and peace making (growing together and accepting our differences).

Or maybe you’ve experienced conflict that comes with painful feelings like rejection, resentment, anger, loneliness. You’ve been left angry and hurt, feeling dismissed, belittled, criticised – or shouldering the blame for things you weren’t responsible for. Most people think of this type of conflict when I say “a healthy marriage will include conflict” – but this is not healthy conflict. It’s destructive and corrosive conflict: the unhealthy, unfair and ugly pattern of conflict that often brings couples into my counselling room.

These are not just my thoughts: this is what marriage research tell us. According to the Gottman Institute (www.gottman.com), all marriages experience conflict. From the most stable and satisfying to the most unstable and disappointing of marriages, conflict will be present and is inevitable. This really shouldn’t be a surprise: just take two unique people – each wonderfully, fearfully, and complexly made – and join them together for the journey of a lifetime. Add in all the challenges that life will bring to them – plus their own particular mix of dreams, longings, concerns and enduring vulnerabilities. Yep, conflict is inevitable. Our differences allow us to complement each other as the two become one, but these same differences can also form potential conflict as we journey together.

For more than 30 years, John Gottman and his team have been comparing couples in stable and satisfying relationships with those in unstable and disappointing relationships. Whatever the relationship type, conflict would show up. Where they differed was in how conflict played out, how they repaired their conflict-based ruptures and what meanings they gave to conflict in their relationship. From conflict patterns expressed early in a marriage, the Gottman research team were able to predict quite well what the future of that marriage would be: growth, maintenance, or end.

Based on Gottman’s research, let me describe 10 key points about conflict in stable and satisfying marriages:

  1. Manage conflict in ways that create understanding: “I didn’t realise you felt that way.”
  2. Have conversations about difficult issues where each person feels heard and understood, even if they hold different views.
  3. Use softened startups to difficult conversations: “I’m finding it hard to keep on top of everything. Can we talk about it?”
  4. Recognise when negativity is escalating and will call for “time-out” to let things de-escalate: “I’m finding this overwhelming. Let’s take a break and continue when things have calmed down.”
  5. Maintain more positive than negative feelings towards their partner during conflict: “Talk with me like I’m someone you love.”
  6. Taking more personal responsibility and blaming their partner less: “You were right: I was already thinking and feeling all of this and was ready to argue before you even got home.”
  7. Openness to compromise: “Let’s see where we can agree on this.”
  8. Able to process and discuss “What just happened there” after conflict.
  9. Repair the rupture: “I’m so sorry for what I just said.”
  10. I’m adding this one because it obviously wasn’t evident during the years of Gottman’s research: couples in stable and satisfying marriages talk out their conflict in person. They don’t use SMS text messages, devices, or social media to achieve this. That’s become my rule #1 as a couples therapist!

A healthy marriage will experience conflict. It’s inevitable and it can be experienced in healthy ways. Don’t get me wrong: it isn’t going to be a comfortable, enjoyable, or even desirable experience! That’s because it requires incredible vulnerability, humility, respect, affection and commitment. All essential ingredients for growing a deeper marriage relationship.

If you think your marriage might need some guidance in the “how to” of healthy conflict, take a step and reach out to a trained couples therapist. It’s possible to learn the skills needed for a healthier conflict style and, ultimately, a more stable and satisfying marriage.

Dr Brad Crook
Empatia Senior Consultant (NSW/ACT)
Relationship Counsellor and Couples Therapist