Why an Imperfect Marriage Works Best

by Gary Gilles

marital conflictSome time ago I was listening to a lecture about marriage and the speaker made some bold claims. He was suggesting that couples avoid conflict in their relationship. This got my attention. He went on to say that couples could eliminate serious conflict from their relationship if both partners worked together toward this end. To illustrate his point, he used the example of a couple he knew who, by their own admission, had never had a serious argument or disagreement in the 30 years of their marriage. After filling in some of the details, the speaker capped off his comments by saying, “I know some of you may think that 30 years of marriage without a serious conflict is hard to believe, but it is the truth.”

As I sat in the audience, I was one of those people having a hard time believing that tale. I’ve been counseling couples for over 25 years and have yet to meet two married people who are that perfect. In my experience, virtually all couples, including my own marriage, face many tough challenges to keep their relationship fresh and vibrant and these challenges inevitably include arguments, conflicts and disagreements along the way.

So, after the lecture ended, I decided to privately engage the speaker for a few minutes to learn more how couples could be so perfectly charming with each other. I started with a statement followed by a question: “I think I understand your purpose.  You are trying to encourage couples to focus more on getting along than what they disagree on, right?” He nodded. “But, don’t you think that encouraging couples to eliminate conflict in their relationship is sending the wrong message?” He didn’t seem to understand. I went on. “Conflict is not necessarily bad. It can be destructive and hurtful, but it can also be a wonderful way to strengthen a relationship if handled in a mature way.”  He listened politely but believed strongly that avoiding conflict is preferable to effective conflict resolution. We parted agreeing to disagree.

I share that story because too many couples secretly believe what this speaker was saying: that the best marriages don’t experience much conflict. But, this is not true. The real test of a strong and secure marriage is not whether you can avoid conflict but how you go about addressing it and repairing the possible injury that may result.  Conflict in a marriage is not only inevitable but should be expected.

The main problem with conflict in a marriage is not that we are at odds with each other but rather the way we go about trying to resolve it. Here are the three most common and ineffective ways conflict is handled in marriages:

  1. Battle

    Many couples approach conflict like swashbuckling musketeers, their words slashing at each other like swords. It is a contest where one person wins and the other loses. But, in fact, both lose partners lose in this approach to conflict resolution. Intimacy can never be nurtured in the relationship where one person comes out as victor. At best, this approach ends in a stalemate with each person feeling as though the other doesn’t understand them. At worst, the relationship is injured and resentment builds.

  2. Subtle hints

    This approach is used as a passive way to sidestep the potential explosiveness of a contentious issue. Hints are usually couched in humor or sarcasm as a way to let your spouse know that you are unhappy, angry or wanting something from them – like an apology. Unfortunately, this indirect way of dealing with conflict usually heightens negative feelings because it inevitably leads to lots of miscommunication and misinterpretation of motives.

  3.  Avoidance

    The “elephant in the room” analogy plays well in this approach. Neither partner is willing to honestly acknowledge the problem or address it. The assumption behind this approach is that talking about the problem will cause an argument. So, it’s better to let time pass and hopefully it will cease to be an issue. Unfortunately, the emotion associated with unresolved conflicts tend to accrue over time and this only sets you up for more explosive conflict later on.

So, how could conflict be handled in a more mature, relationship-enhancing way?

Take responsibility for your part

When conflict erupts, take a step back and ask yourself what you might be contributing to the conflict. Our first inclination is to blame the other person. But, what might you be doing that is hindering efforts to resolve the issue? For example, are you insistent on getting your way? Are you raising your voice, talking down to your spouse or shaming them in order to assume a one-up position in the disagreement? Chances are good that if you are not making progress, you are making some contribution to the failed efforts to resolve the problem. Be willing to take responsibility for what you are doing, admit it, apologize and move toward a resolution. When both partners are willing to do this, it can change the whole tone and direction of the conversation.

Put your views aside temporarily

Virtually any dead-end conflict can be dramatically turned around if one partner is willing to unselfishly put their views off to the side temporarily and listen carefully to the concerns of their spouse. For example, a couple is going round and round about an issue and the more they talk the more frustrated they both become because neither feels the other is truly listening. One partner could say, “Look, we aren’t making any progress as long as we both keep trying to convince each other of our views. I really want to understand what you are trying to tell me so I will stop making my points and really tune in to what you are saying.” When an honest and sincere attempt is made to carefully listen and take your spouse seriously, it has the ability to disarm the defensive posture often taken in marital conflict. The idea then is for the other spouse to eventually reciprocate the same attentiveness while their partner explains their position. This often opens up a new way of hearing and understanding the core concerns of your mate.

Work toward emotional resolve

The most important part of conflict resolution is not the logistical outcome but the emotional resolve.  It is the emotional resolve that enables the relationship to move forward, feel close and be secure. For example, if a conflict erupts over the failure of one partner to pay the bills on time, the surface resolve may be to never let this happen again. But there is an emotional component that also needs to be addressed. Perhaps in getting to that resolve to never be late with the bills, one spouse berated the other for their irresponsibility or for damaging their credit rating. There are feelings of anger, hurt and maybe disappointment about how this logistical resolve was achieved. That means more work is needed to dig out the feelings and work through them to finally put the issue to rest. A great way to do that is to use the skill learned in the second point above (putting your views aside and listening carefully to the feelings of your spouse).

Conflict is rarely easy and never fun, but it can be used effectively to strengthen a marriage relationship if approached with a willingness to own your part, listen effectively to your spouse and work out the underlying emotions that may still be lingering.

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Thank you for dispelling this myth. I think so many people believe this–maybe even more so within the church. Conflict is inevitable, so why not learn to make it work for you?

I also really appreciate that you approached the speaker as well. The guilt and shame that some couples were probably experiencing under this gentleman’s instruction is so unfortunate.


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