The Purpose of Conflict in Marriage
When we are first married, we think that we will be happy together forever! We love everything about the other person, and want to be with them as much as possible. According to Dr. Gary Chapman in his book, The Five Love Languages, this "in love" experience is a temporary euphoria that lasts for about two years. After that, we come down off of the high, and realize that marriage was not what we originally thought. The daily grind sets in, and conflict quickly comes to the surface. When two people come together, they bring with them individual personalities, family experiences, culture, education, and socioeconomic backgrounds. These are the seeds of conflict. Unless we recognize when they come to the surface, and know what to do with them, they will quickly grow into noxious weeds that choke the beautiful flower of our love. Once this happens, our marriages are destined to fail!
Conflict is a Means to an End
Conflict is the means by which problems come to our attention. It is an uncomfortable friction like a grain of sand in the heart of an oyster. In order to make a beautiful pearl, the oyster must generate a substance that coats the grain of sand to keep the irritation to a minimum.
We know that conflict has come to the surface when we notice this discomfort. Perhaps it has to do with the way our spouse leaves clothing laying around the house, or a decision that was made without our consent. No matter the source, we have to take action to resolve it. Should we choose not to act, the friction will rub our relationship raw.
How we deal with conflict is often the result of our past experiences. Our brain shifts into automatic drive, and our feelings take over. We don't realize that others have had different things happen in their lives, and their interpretations are not the same as ours.
We have to be careful. It is easy to let our gut reactions of fear, aggression, intimidation, blame and sarcasm take over. Both parties end up in survival mode, only trying to protect themselves, and arguing and fighting quickly ensue.
The purpose of conflict, then, is to bring two people together to make something beautiful out of a difficult situation. This doesn't happen automatically. It requires, time, effort, understanding, cooperation, and skill. Listening is of primary importance.
The video, The Trouble with Conflict, contrasts two different reactions to the same scenario, and helps us understand conflict even further.
Arguing versus Discussing
An argument is only one way of dealing with conflict. It is characterized by yelling, exaggeration, intimidation, blaming, and escalating emotions. It usually begins with an accusation. We believe that we are right and the other person has somehow wronged us. We quickly make assumptions and blame the other person for our predicament.
On the other hand, a discussion begins with the goal of preserving our relationship with the other person. Rather than thinking the worst, we assume the best. We try to find out what happened and how we can work together for it to be resolved. The table below outlines the differences between an argument and a discussion.
Briskly walking toward
Approaching with caution
Leaning forward to intimidate
Leaning back to think
Animated Facial Expression
Look of care and concern
Focus on "You" messages
Focus on sharing of feelings
Focus on "I" messages
Focus on resolution of the problem
Pointing finger of blame
Offering compromise or concession
Arms sweeping out in exaggeration
Arms around in loving embrace
"Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans."
- John Lennon -
The Unmade Bed*
“It’s your turn to make the bed today.”
“I don’t have time, I am on my way.”
“But we agreed that the last one awake would make the bed before too late.”
“That was your idea, it was not mine, you are always the one up on time.”
“So you think I am trying to punish you? Well then put your foot inside my shoe. I like the bed to be made you see, but when you are still in it, it cannot be. If it isn't made it gets full of grit, and I don’t like to lie in it.”
“Then make it now, since you have the time. I am late. It is almost nine. My boss really gets angry with me when I am late, so don’t you see? You are here much longer than I, you have time to make it, so now, goodbye.”
“Wait a minute, this isn't resolved. We can’t just abandon, we are too involved. We both slept in the bed last night, and I don’t think that we need to fight. Maybe there is another way, let us both make the bed today.”
“That is fine for you to say, but I really must be on my way. I do love you and don’t want to shout, but you make it difficult to leave that out."
“Shout if you must, but pick up the sheet. We’ll pull it up and make it neat. Then the blanket, and bedspread too. There it is done, now off with you. Before you go each morning, then, we can both make the bed by the count of ten.”
“I like that plan, and I like you, too. I am glad that we could see this through. I like the idea when there’s work to do, that we do it together, that fits my shoe. We can have a happy home, and don’t have to feel we are striving alone."
Developing a Strategy
Conflict does not have to immobilize or cripple our marriage. When we resolve to take care of it as it happens, we are making the decision to communicate together to solve the problems that arise. Dr. John Gottman, in his book Why Marriages Fail or Succeed, speaks of differing ways that couples deal with conflict. He says that those who have a "style" are able to resolve it in the best interest of both parties.
The table below lists some strategies that are helpful in developing a style of dealing with conflict:
Keep voice level calm
Prevent situation from escalating
State the problem
Bring the issue out in the open
Remember past decisions
See what has been done previously
Look at possible solutions
Project into the future
What would be the result if certain things were decided
Look for win-win
Find a solution amiable for both parties
Re-establish bonds of love
The Role of Listening in Conflict
Our difficulty in dealing with conflict may be connected to our ability to listen. According to the podcast The Power of Listening, our ability to listen to another person while they are talking is hampered by the following issues:
- Preoccupation with our own lives
- Devaluing the person that is speaking
- Thinking ahead of what we are going to say
- Distraction with things in our environment
- A lack of interest in the subject matter being discussed
When two people are communicating, especially in a conflict situation, it is necessary to set aside our own agendas, issues, and feelings, and do our best to hear what the other person is saying. Doing so will enable communication both on a feeling and an intellectual level, thus facilitating problem solving.
Use the following steps when listening:
- Look at the person
- Erase any assumptions or fault finding
- Focus on gathering information
- Seek to see the other person's point of view
- Rephrase and summarize for understanding
- Work toward a win-win solution
As we give others the benefit of the doubt when conflict arises, we find that others are really not out to get us, make us feel bad, or have a difficult time. Rather most people want to have positive communication and relationships with others. Our job is to do what it takes to build our relationships.
Let conflict lead to communication rather than crisis, for your emotional health!
© 2014 by Denise W. Anderson, all rights reserved.
*Poem The Unmade Bed by Denise W. Anderson.
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