Marriage Skills: Learning to Manage Conflict

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

The journey through marriage is exciting but not without detours. It’s important to remember that no marriage comes without its own set of hurdles. In any relationship, including marriage, there is going to be conflict.


Take a moment to reflect on what conflict means to you and how it makes you feel. If thinking about conflict is unpleasant, you are not alone. Conflict is a topic that often makes many people feel uncomfortable. Just the word itself has a negative connotation, so it’s common to think conflict should be a) avoided or b) resolved as quickly as possible.


Not so fast. Dr. John Gottman, Washington psychologist studying couples for almost 50 years offers an alternative to avoiding or resolving conflict based on his research. What the data shows, is that 69% of problems experienced in marriage cannot be solved. This might sound shocking at first, but there is an explanation. Long-standing issues often can’t be resolved with a quick fix and therefore it is more productive to manage those conflicts rather than to avoid or try to resolve them altogether. Things such as spending habits may cause stress or tension in your relationship, or certain personality traits in your partner that might strike a nerve or rub you the wrong way, are among some of the conflicts that are more apt to being managed than resolved.



Benefits to Managing Conflict



“Choose discomfort over resentment”– Brené Brown


Each one of you has unique experiences, strengths and needs that shape your personal views, thoughts and actions. It’s logical to anticipate that these will result, at some point, in differences in perspective that may lead to disagreements. Perhaps your first instinct could be to avoid sharing your own opinion in an attempt to prevent any subsequent conflict. When differences are not acknowledged or discussed, however, they tend to lead to resentment.


If resentment builds under the surface, it can eventually lead to conflict in the form of passive-aggressive behavior towards your partner, or even boil over into hostile arguments. Or perhaps, you are the kind of person who believes the best course of action is to resolve the conflict at hand as soon as possible. Your effort would entail finding a concrete solution to the issue in an attempt to finally put the problem to rest once and for all. What you may find, to your dismay, is that more often than not, the problem will resurface and continue to cause conflict in your relationship despite it had seemingly been ‘resolved’.




Conflict management to the rescue



Conflict management takes a different approach to these issues by a) softening the conversation around conflict and b) creating a space where both partners can discuss grievances with the expectation of managing the conflict rather than making it go away.


I invite the two of you to have realistic expectations about your relationship. In order to facilitate your taking this very healthy, logical and reasonable approach, I have prepared the following conflict management strategies you would be wise to practice before the first conflict arises.


1. Take breaks


If the conflict between the two of you starts to become too heated, spend some time calming down individually. Taking 15 to 20 minutes apart and doing something that soothes you, like going for a walk or listening to music will allow you to come back to the conversation with a different tone more conducive to managing the issue at hand.

2. Communicate without blame:


You might feel that your partner is at fault for the conflict at hand, but casting blame, criticism and accusation will not be productive. When one or both parties feel attacked, it will cause hostility and defensiveness. Use “I” statements and avoid accusatory “you” statements, instead.


“You promised you would take care of this chore but now I have to do it. You make me so mad.” Is an example of the above.


Do this instead: Identify your feelings without casting blame on your partner first. As we discussed earlier, taking a break to calm down may allow you to regulate your emotions, reflect better on how you feel and re-enter the conversation. Try saying:


- “This chore hasn’t been completed and we agreed that you would take care of it. I feel upset about this.”

Notice that this type of communication avoids attacking your partner and opens up the lines of communication about the conflict and how it can be managed.


3. Make it a team effort:


Each one of you is responsible for managing conflict wisely. In the heat of the moment, you may be too upset to recognize your part in the conflict but once you’ve been able to communicate effectively, offer an apology to your partner. Explain that you understand your part in the conflict and offer an apology for that behavior. Then ask your partner what they may need from you to heal after the conflict and move forward. Open up the discussion to acknowledge small compromises you both can make in the bigger effort to manage conflicts moving forward.


Finally, remember that conflict is common in any type relationship and this is no different in marriage. With a willingness to communicate with each other in a calm, respectful way, you two will not only effectively manage conflict, but grow stronger in connection, understanding and love.