Before we start with what I promise will not be another list of outdated marriage conflict resolution clichés, just the following few items of clarification.
When I refer to “marriage” I am using it in the wide, modern sense of the term, which has nothing to do with the legal recognition of the relationship between two people. I am aiming to distinguish between any long-term personal relationship between two people, for which the term “marriage” still has enough meaning for us to use here, and a similar relationship specifically intended to be of shorter duration. The forever and ever type of relationship. Before we start, a word of caution and concern about your physical and mental health during marital conflict. As we know, and as our brutal GBV statistics grimly remind us, physical and other types of violence is often a part of these conflicts, and you should please involve law enforcement and other legal remedies where you are in physical danger or where you deem this appropriate. These conflict concepts and techniques that we will be looking at should only be used if you are not in any immediate physical or other danger.
Similarly, if your mental health is suffering as a result of such conflict, please consult a medical health professional.
Lastly, a word on realistic expectations. As much I fall on the conservative side of the spectrum in trying to keep marriages going, I am also aware that this is not always feasible, and that staying in a relationship may even be harmful to the parties, children and other parties involved. So if you believe that your marriage relationship has come to an end then this discussion is also maybe not for you. Not all personal relationships can, or even should, be saved. Only you, in possible consultation with family, friends and advisors, can decide whether there is a realistic chance of your marriage being saved or not.
What we are going to consider here are strategies to allow parties to have constructive and healthy conflicts in their marriage, and for those that may be experiencing more serious marital conflicts, to try and work through that in improving their conflicts. As such this is not marriage counselling, but improving your conflict competency and seeing the benefits that constructive conflicts in a marriage can bring. For a lot of people, their family and marital relationships will be where they confront the most important and most recurring conflicts of their lives.
It is important, even if just for our own sake, that we achieve some level of competency with these conflicts. We are not going to repeat the standard advice here, you have no doubt heard it, it may or may not work, and we do not need to repeat that level of conflict strategies. Our discussion will assume that you are aware of the benefits of approaching our marital conflicts with love, compassion, respect and dignity, that you understand the value of constructive listening, dealing with the issue and refraining from personal attacks, and a few other conflict techniques that have been shared at a popular level. Here we will discuss eight very specific techniques that can be seen as updated, more advanced level marital conflict strategies and techniques, for those who can find benefit in such information.
With all that in mind, let us then improve your marital conflicts.
1. Say what?
Speaking of clichés, it is well understood that we have negative conflicts because we fail to communicate effectively. But what does this mean in practice? Modern conflict case studies show us that it is not so much the communication itself (most of us can communicate adequately, especially when in the presence of our partner) that causes the conflict problems, but what is understood by our partner when they receive our communication. Neuroscience and psychology show us that we really respond not so much to what is said, but to what we think and assume is said to us. In that process we filter seemingly direct and simple communication through various lenses of past experiences, emotional and even chemical influences, and create what is known as “conflict scripts”, where we already have a story in our minds, and then communication gets filtered through that pre-existing template (“I can see Vusi has had a hard day, I better be careful”).
If we want to be better understood then, even if only for our own benefit, we will keep an eye on two of the moving parts in this aspect of marital conflict: firstly, we will try our best to communicate clearer, bearing in mind what could be assumed from our words, our nonverbal communication and the context of what we are saying as seen against the where and when of that communication. Here seemingly simple aspects such as the time of day, the place where we communicate and the timing of that conversation can all play a big role in being understood clearly. Secondly, we will accept that there is a limitation on what we can do to make ourselves clear and well understood, and we will assume that there may be a level of misunderstanding that occurred between the message being sent and when it was received. We will compensate for this and clarify this when we see a conversation going off the rails, where earlier is better.
2. The differentiation dance
Conflict research shows us the dangers of rushing our conflicts. We do this for several good reasons. We do not want conflict to linger in our home, we may be conflict avoidant, we may wish to prevent an escalation of the conflict, or our favourite television program may be about to start. For these reasons we rush to conclusion, to (as we may see it at the time) resolution. As understandable as this may be, it skips a very important part that is necessary in most conflict, especially the more complex one, and that is the so-called differentiation phase. This is where parties share information, make their positions on issues clear, and send each other a lot of verbal and nonverbal messages about other items of information that may be of crucial importance later in their relationship, such as possible concessions, how important the conflict is to them, clues about other, related fears and concerns and so on. If we now skip or rush this differentiation phase we lose all of that information, and we do not get to share our side with each other. This may bring about a short-term resolution, but we should be careful to not oversimplify any complex conflicts this way. An argument about dinner is not always about dinner, and in the wonderfully interlinked web that is family life our rush to finalization may cost us valuable opportunities to better understand, air and resolve conflicts and concerns. The differentiation phase is a crucial phase in all important conflicts, and it is often made more difficult because, on the one hand we need this important information, but on the other hand this is often also the shrill, angry phase of a conflict, where people share that information while angry, scared or working through difficult emotions.
Getting this phase wrong now leads to negative conflict outcomes such as conflict avoidance or rigidity, distrust, miscommunication and it becomes increasingly difficult to correct mistakes made during this phase. So as difficult as this may be, try to get all the puzzle pieces on the table, get all the emotions, facts, goals and fears aired as much as possible, and only then you start working towards integration and resolution.
3. Good fences make good … partners
We sometimes confuse the simple practical reality of living with someone, where we share our most intimate secrets, fears, wishes and thoughts, with not having emotional boundaries. Modern conflict research and practice has returned us to a place where certain psychological and emotional boundaries are recognized as being good, even necessary, for the relationship. This research also shows how often the irritation and conflict that arise from a breach of such boundaries can be attributed mainly to those boundaries not being established and maintained with sufficient clarity by the party that wants them respected. This simply reminds us that we should take responsibility for making our own emotional and psychological boundaries clear to our partner. These boundaries do not need any specific penalty or consequence to be a part of the exercise (that can be considered as and when the conflict escalates), but the real value lies in the existence of that boundary.
4. Your chemical romance
Fascinating information from the collective disciplines known as neuroscience teaches us how, at some level, we are influenced by a variety of hormones, neurobiological processes and chemical reactions (see for example the influence of oxytocin) in our decision making processes. When we are suddenly and unexpectedly exposed to some of the higher emotions such as fear or anger, our systems are flooded with these chemicals, most of which were originally evolved to help us deal with survival decisions such as fight or flight, self-defence and so on. Not all those reactions are necessary, or appropriate, in our modern lives. At a certain level there is very little that we can do for those seconds or minutes that our nervous systems are influenced by these chemicals, but simply being aware of the fact that for that time we may not be able to process (or even gather) information as optimally as we may want to should already assist us in doing better with these conflict outcomes. A simple strategy is to consciously slow things down, breathe, get up to make coffee, go for a walk before you react to a provocation or sudden attack. You will be better able to respond when these influences have left your system.
5. Emotions in motion
Modern conflict and related research has done away with the earlier wisdom that told us how rational our thought process are, and should be, and the dangers and shortcomings of using our emotions during important conversations and conflicts. While facts and rationality will always have great value, we are simply not as rational as we may have thought, and a lot of our most important thought processes and decisions are greatly influenced by our instincts and emotions. While this is a very large and complex topic, we can simply welcome emotions back at the conflict table. This does not mean (necessarily) the loud and destructive type of emotion, and we know that poorly expressed emotions can be very harmful, but we can be assured that we can, and should, make our emotions a part of our conflicts. The effective use of our emotions to access complex areas of ourselves, to connect with others and to convey what we want to tell our partner is a wonderfully constructive use of what comes naturally.
6. Don’t bring facts to these fights
Closely allied to the correct place of emotions in our conflicts is the latest research about the use of factual arguments in the so-called identity (or value) conflicts. These are the conflicts involving our deepest identities, they deal with things that define us, that we regard as part of our very self. We see examples of these arguments involving religion, politics, sport and other apparently important topics, but below the surface they really deal with how we see the world, what we value, how we regard “good” people and their views, what the appropriate reaction to a given situation should be. We lean very heavily on these identities, they shape and guide us, and we are very unlikely to change our minds on these ideas. Research and case studies show that not even the use of seemingly objective facts are likely to move a person from his position in these identity arguments. There is simply too much at stake for the person to move away from a position that underpins his very self-image. As such, even a seemingly reasonable and factual argument about say Covid vaccination or whether an amount should be saved or spent, may have an apparent, surface level content, but run on much deeper emotional lines at the level of identity. Here facts, as you may see them, are nothing short of an attack on that person’s identity, values and way of life. It may be deeply entrenched and sustained by family, friends and social media support over a number of years. To you the person’s response and rejection of your “clear facts” may seem unreasonable, and this may escalate the conflict if this identity conflict mechanism is not understood. The research also shows, just to further complicate the challenge, that using only facts in these arguments actually serves to entrench that person in their views, which means that your factual attack and subsequent escalation has just made things worse. We need to be aware that these identity arguments do not respond well to just the use of factual counterarguments, and that other, more complex conflict tools are necessary. The assessment of these identity conflicts, and the efficient nine step strategy to deal with such conflicts is a very complex topic, and a summary of the process can be found at DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS - part 2/3 - The Conflict Conversations (conflict-conversations.co.za) , or a broader discussion in Dangerous Magic, my book on conflict resolution out in January 2023.
7. Conflict triggers
Marital conflicts, maybe more than any other, show several interlinked conflict patterns. In my work, the finding of these patterns is often the first and most important clue to where the parties are in their conflicts. The topics may (or may not) change, but there are often discernible patterns of conflicts that become cyclical, repetitive and, more often than not, harmful. These patterns are items of unresolved conflicts, for whatever reason, and continue to poison the well of that marriage. While we may all have them to some degree, they are generally cause for some concern, and they should be identified and resolved. These unresolved conflicts, as well as other areas of concern or vulnerability in your life, and your partner’s life, will be more likely to set off conflict. These conflicts can ostensibly be about one topic, but really be about one of these conflict triggers. In this way, for example, an argument can seem to be about the price of school clothes, but really have triggered insecurity about adequately providing for your family, or losing your job. Try to see these triggers, in yourself and your partner, the words, the concepts, the memories that make up these triggers and try to manage them better. This may need you to time discussions about them as well as you can. You need not necessarily understand or judge these triggers, just being aware of them is often already a great conflict management tool.
8. Four red flags
The above seven conflict techniques and information will hopefully help you to start you on the journey to improve your general conflict competency, from which will follow an increased conflict confidence. We conclude our brief discussion on marital conflict with four red flags waved by well-known marriage researcher John Gottman, four warning signs that we should heed in the interests of a healthy marriage. Gottman has had remarkable success in predicting the success or failure of a marriage using these four categories of conflict.
They are criticism, where we do not mean to improve behaviour but really just want to be negative in pointing out mistakes in or made by our partner, and contempt, where we actually intend insulting our partner. These first two red flags generate an atmosphere of defensiveness and conflict rigidity, where honest communication and accountability becomes increasingly more difficult, and people now start to either close down or they start repeating themselves. The fourth warning sign is then stonewalling, where one or both of the partners start disengaging from the relationship, where they refuse to meaningfully discuss an issue, where they are unable to make concessions or accept responsibility, and where improving or saving the marriage becomes very difficult. Of course all four of these events are to be expected in a marriage. Not every criticism or insult will be a warning sign, but it is when these events start forming repetitive patterns that there should be cause for concern and a proactive response.
For my two part radio interview on CapeTalk on these red and green flags, as well as an article on the topic in The Herald newspaper, see Red and green flags in our personal relationships - The Conflict Conversations (conflict-conversations.co.za)
Our marital conflicts are both the mechanisms through which we communicate important information that may not be capable of other transmission, where we create solutions and bridge dark valleys, but also the ways in which we can destroy that special relationship. What we say and do, what we do not say or do, all have an interconnected role in our marriages. Conflict can heal, restore and transcend, or it can destroy. It is inevitable, it is necessary. The best way to deal with our important interpersonal conflicts is to be conflict competent, to work at these conflicts, to get better at them, to use them as vehicles of growth and improvement. May your marriage be enriched by constructive conflicts.
(Andre Vlok can be contacted on email@example.com for any further information) Andre Vlok