Conflicts — 29 October 2003
How to deal with recurring marital conflicts

Thornton Wilder, the playwright, said: “The best part of married life is
the fights. The rest is merely so-so.” Many couples disagree. They feel
exasperated with the repeated pattern of unresolved conflicts. They
would prefer to avoid the predictable cycle of miscommunication and hurt
feelings. Yet, they are at a loss of how to resolve these conflicts.

Research indicates that sixty seven percent of marital arguments are

chronic and can not be resolved. Couples have areas of ongoing
disagreements followed by predictable verbal exchanges leading to no
change. You can probably easily cite the topics of recurring conflict in
your marriage and date them back to the onset of the relationship.

Couples may disagree about money, sex, child- rearing practices,
household chores, rituals, relatives, life plans and even vacations. So why is it that logical, loving mates, find themselves unable to
understand, compromise or relent on these few issues which bring both of
them so much grief?

The main reason is that the so- called topic of conflict is NOT the
source of the painful interactions.
When couples do not share the same view they end up blaming each other
for lack of understanding. That is actually correct. You probably won’t
resolve most fights because you are not talking about the real source of
the pain.

For example, Mary may call Bob a “miser” and ” and Bob labels Mary a
“spendthrift” rather than finding out what lies behind their need to
save or spend. An important question Mary must ask Bob is “why is it so
important for you to save money?” “What does saving money mean to you?”
She may learn that Bob’s father had to declare bankruptcy twice during
Bob’s childhood at the grave suffering to the whole family. Bob
remembered the shame of having to fend off bill collectors and vowed
that he would never put his family in this position.

Conversely, if Mary were asked about the deeper meaning of spending she
might also refer to her childhood experiences. She may tell of her
mother’s cruel treatment of her and the subsequent apologies through
material indulgences. Mary learned to feel loved through shopping.

While their views and habits may never change, understanding the deeper
meaning of money may create more compassion and love between them and
may even lead to a negotiated compromise.

In most fights couples never search for the core of the partner’s
stance. They tend to only talk about the superficial and obvious reasons
for their positions. The more essential values and needs may be: feeling
respected, seeking honesty, being number one in the relationship, being
heard, making a difference, being equal, being valued as a partner,
lover or parent.

Almost everything we feel very strongly about is associated with
something very deep and meaningful that occurred to us in childhood or
in life prior to marriage. Understanding our partners powerful events,
emotions, values and choices often softens our view of them and opens
our hearts to love and compromise.

In addition to asking about the special meaning the topic has for your
partner, you need to also ask what your partner wants that he is not
getting. The conflict often comes about in reaction to an unmet need..
For Example: Mary’s wish is to get more attention from Bob. Her use of
money is a substitute for not having Bob around enough. Bob’s secret
wish is to get validation from Mary about being a good and responsible
provider. Neither one of them may ever get his needs met as long as the
repeated argument is about money and leads to being labeled,
misunderstood and devalued.

Research tells us that fighting is not a predictive factor of divorce.
Couples who fight often are no more likely to part than couples who
seldom fight. What contributes to divorce is a destructive style of
fighting, the belief that the partner is defective, and the loss of ways
to repair damaging negative exchanges. If your fights often end up with
both of you resenting each other – your marriage is at risk.

To gain a more intimate understanding about your fights, consider the

  • Realize that the repeated content of the fight is not the core of the
  • Ask your partner for the MEANING of his position to him.
  • Listen respectfully to the earlier experiences that shaped her views.
  • Refrain from labels and judgmental descriptions of your partner.
  • Ask your partner what would be a deep desire she may have about the
    area in conflict.
  • Trust that with loving good will _ a compromise is possible.
  • If you don’t see an easy compromise- ask yourself how much you are
    willing to yield in your position- offer it to your partner.
  • Remember that even if the issue is hard to resolve now- you can
    process it again and again. As long as you continue to talk
    respectfully- the solution grows closer.
  • Most couples live with certain unresolved chronic differences; none
    should cause you to question the permanency of the marriage.
    Perhaps those unresolvable conflicts fall within the realm of the
    “worse” part of the vow “for better or worse”. Recount for yourself the
    “better” parts of your relationship. You’d be pleased to be in it.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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