When Lauren and Les argue, they do so with gusto! Voices are raised, they talk over one another, and in the end they rarely come to any agreement. However, the next thing anyone knows they’re sitting snuggled up on the couch whispering and giggling to one another. A friend asks them, “You were just at each other’s throats. How can you now be laughing together?” “Oh that,” Les comments, “We forgot about that fight 10 seconds after we stopped yelling.” “Yeah. Why would we let a silly disagreement destroy our relationship?” Lauren adds.
“You never listen to me!” Gwen cries. “I never listen? I never listen!? Well I’m listening right now aren’t I? I listen, let me tell you. I listen to you who won’t stop nagging me every second of the day!” …The newlywed couple knew they had a problem with conflict. They come to you to ask if you can help them stop their terrible wars with words.
Marriage Therapy in Boston, MA: Definitions and Key Thoughts
Every marriage has conflict. The idea that some couples never disagree is crazy.
John Gottman, in his groundbreaking book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, writes that there are three perfectly acceptable conflict styles couples can use: volatile, affirming, and avoidant.
1). Volatile Conflict Style:
With this conflict styles, conflicts erupt often, and they result in passionate disputes. Both parties voice their position, challenging and refuting their spouses. Hence the conflict is rarely resolved. However, the conflict is counteracted by all the good times in the marriage. When looking at the whole picture, the couple is well-satisfied with the marriage relationship.
2). Validating Conflict Style:
This is the conflict style psychologists and counselors have traditionally taught to their clients. With this conflict style, couples talk, listen, compromise and calmly work out their problems to their mutual satisfaction.
3). Avoidant Conflict Style:
With this conflict style, couples rarely if ever confront a conflict head on. Instead, the marriage motto is “agree to disagree.” The couple acknowledges that they are different, strong willed, independent individuals, and that they will have different opinions on some issues. As long as the couple agrees on most things, the relationship can continue to grow.
Historically, many mental health professionals have considered Avoidant and Volatile conflict styles to be destructive to marriages. However Gottman’s research suggests that all three styles are equally acceptable for maintaining or building a healthy marriage. (1)
Gottman has found that it doesn’t really matter what conflict style a couple uses. What matters is that there are enough positive interactions in the marriage to counter the negative ones. It is believed that between 4-20 positive interactions are necessary to counter one negative interaction.
However, arguments can sometimes lead to dirty fighting between husband and wife. A dirty fight is one that alienates or hurts a spouse. When this happens, bitterness, anger, resentment, and even thoughts of divorce or violence can take root in a marriage. Often when spouses are fighting dirty they are doing so because of a profound ‘heart problem.’
Patients with bad heart conditions need to change their unhealthy habits. Heart patients who have “hardening of the arteries” receive regular examinations. Like medical doctors, counselors can help those who need a “heart examination.” We can help to diagnose the problem by testing eight potentially problematic areas:
1. Pride: “Do I focus on how much I’ve been wronged?”
2. Faultfinding: “Do I rehearse the faults of others?”
3. Avoidance: “Do I avoid being around people with whom I have conflict?”
4. Silence: “Do I refuse to share my feelings in a healthy way?”
5. Isolation: “Do I withdraw emotionally?”
6. Unfaithfulness: “Do I share unnecessary information about my opposer?”
7. Hopelessness: “Do I lack faith that God can work in any situation?”
8. Resentment: “Do I hold on to my anger until it turns to bitterness?”
Thankfully, in the pursuit of marital peace, there are a great many skills couples can learn to fight fair when conflict shows up in their relationship.
Boston Marriage Therapy: Assessment Interview
Asking the following questions will help you to get a better picture of the spouses’ conflict styles and the impact conflict has had in their marriage:
- How often do the two of you fight?
- Do you have more good times or more bad times?
- Are your fights ever violent?
- Are your fights heated?
- Are your fights more or less discussions or negotiations?
- Are either one of you “hit below the belt” when having conflict (see below)?
- Do you stay calm when you fight?
Boston Counseling Insights
Rules for Fighting Fair
No matter what conflict style the couple has (and be aware each spouse can have a different style), anyone can benefit from learning the following basic rules to fighting fair.
Make sure the spouse does not overreact to the situation. By remaining calm the spouse will be more likely to consider their partner’s perspectives. This could eliminate a conflict before it even starts, especially if the conflict is based on a misunderstanding (and many are). If a spouse feels he/she is so angry or upset that they will not be able to deal with the conflict in a healthy manner, instruct him/her to take a “time out” or help the spouse put the matter back into perspective. This one conflict is likely a small matter in the lifespan of the marriage.
One conflict at a time.
If a couple is having trouble resolving one issue, why would they be able to resolve more than one at a time? Some couples try to fix every problem in their marriage at the same time, and in the end they feel exasperated and overwhelmed. Hence, it is best to address one matter of conflict at a time, leaving all others off-limits until the matter at hand is resolved (or let go). Note: If the couple has a lot of problems stored up, it could be challenging to pick one problem to begin. Sometimes many little problems will feel very intertwined because they are really parts of a larger overarching problem.
The quickest way to make someone defensive is to accuse them of something. Therefore, instead of accusing a spouse (e.g., you hurt me!) of something, instruct the couple to emphasize how the spouse’s action(s) have made the other feel (e.g., when you said that it hurt me!).
Have the spouse be specific when they voice what the trouble is. It is imperative to have a clear understanding of what is bothering the spouse? Vague complaints are impossible to resolve. Moreover, the words “never” and “always” are two of the worst words to use during a conflict. The reason is that it is almost always an exaggeration. “You never pay attention” or “you are always late” are statements that—though they might feel true—over emphasize a less severe situation. “I would like you to pay better attention” and “It upsets me when you are late” are two much better ways to frame the same issue.
Don’t hit below the belt.
It’s a rule in boxing, and it’s a rule for marriages. While in boxing it refers to hitting the opponent in the, ehem, crotch region, hitting below the belt in marital conflict is an attack on the spouse as a person, not an attack on the issue. Moreover, it is usually an attack on a spouse’s area of personal sensitivity, delivered with intent to hurt the spouse, not resolve an issue.
Storing up small grievances is counterproductive to marital health. Therefore, it is best to deal with problems as they arise. This isn’t always possible of course. Sometimes the time is just not right to begin a conflict; such as right before bed, while someone is at work, or in front of company, family or friends. So, to help resolve small issues that pile up, some couples practice something called “withholdings time” where they can verbalize small grievances that have occurred such as “you offended me when our guests were over last night,” or “you forgot to turn off the heat when you left again this morning.” If not discussed (or just let go of) these small grievances build up and often explode with a wave of emotion when the couple has conflict regarding something more major.
Boston Marriage Therapy – Conflict Action Plan
If a couple comes to your office, chances are a bad conflict has already occurred. Perhaps one spouse (or both) said or did something that hurt the other deeply. If this is where you find the persons you are counseling, have the couple implement the following guidelines.
The process of reconciliation can occur when both parties are willing to listen without interrupting. They both need to be respectful and understand that there are two sides to every story, two sets of feelings that need to be understood, and two hearts that need to be healed. The following lists of do’s and don’ts will be helpful to those who are trying to guide two people in reconciliation:
In the “do” column:
(1) See the situation from the other’s point of view.
(2) Repeat back: “I hear you saying . Is that correct?”
(3) Use words that encourage.
(4) Be respectful, even if you are not treated respectfully.
(5) Realize that you have the power to change only yourself.
(6) Be at peace, knowing that you have the Prince of Peace in your heart.
Now for the “don’ts”:
(1) Don’t forget that your opposer is also God’s creation.
(2) Don’t harbor resentment, bitterness, or hatred.
(3) Don’t use “you” statements: “You make me mad . . . you should . . . you always. . . .”
(4) Don’t get drawn into useless arguments.
(5) Don’t expect an immediate change.
(6) Don’t assume that reconciliation is always possible.
Physical healing cannot take place unless the person chooses to do what is healthy. Similarly, the healing of two wounded hearts will not take place if both parties defiantly refuse to ask forgiveness. But since there are wrong ways and right ways of asking, you may need to explain the difference:
(1) Don’t make excuses: “I couldn’t help it.”
(2) Don’t use the blame game: “You made me do it.”
(3) Accept full responsibility: “My attitude was inexcusable.”
(4) Accept full blame for your part: “No one can make another person sin. I acknowledge that I sinned against you.”
(5) With a humble heart say, “I’ve tried to see our relationship from your point of view. I realize that I’ve been wrong in my attitude of . Would you forgive me?”
Some persons have a wound that will not heal because they won’t leave the wound alone. Just as a wound needs to be allowed to heal, a person needs to allow forgiveness to do its work. As the counselor, you can be effectively used by God to present practical steps in the healing process. Some of these steps include:
(1) Realizing that forgiveness is not letting the offender “off the hook,” but an act of releasing the offender from your hook and onto God’s hook.
(2) Deciding that you want to be free from the pain of the past.
(3) Recognizing the unmet need(s) in the one who hurt you.
(4) Listing every offense, and then, instead of “picking” at the wrongs, releasing each offense and the offender into the hands of God.
(For more see the section on forgiveness and reconciliation)
Enlisting a Mediator
If a doctor has been consulted and the medical condition seems uncertain, a “second opinion” is often sought. Sometimes another mediator is needed. Seek a person whom both spouses can respect. Say to them, “At times an outside person brings to the table a different perspective. Would you consider a mediator to help us think through the problems to reach a successful end?”
Each person must be prepared to experience the possibility of a negative outcome from the process of reconciliation. Ultimately, a relationship may not work out between two people. One person cannot be responsible for the outcome of a relationship. However, each person is responsible for handling the reconciliation process in a responsible manner.
(1) John Gottman, Why Marriages Succeed of Fail,
Thrive Boston Therapy and Life Coaching in Cambridge, MA helps hundreds of couples every year save and improve their marriages. To schedule an appointment, or for more information about therapy services, call 617-395-5806.