Does this fight seem familiar? Have you noticed that you and your spouse keep finding yourselves in conflict over the same topics during the course of your relationship? Revisiting the same argument over and over again is incredibly common; so common, in fact, that Dr. John Gottman’s research, outlined in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, shows that 69% of conflicts in marriages never get solved.
There are some important facets to these conflicts that cause them to become perpetual problems. First, they are often rooted in our different values and priorities. As infinitely complex human beings, we are all going to see things like money, parenting, sex, work and household chores differently, and accordingly, we will assign each with differing priority.
Secondly, we tend to view our values and priorities as objective rather than subjective. As a result, we pursue conflicts in these areas with the intent to convince our spouse that the value and priority we have assigned to an aspect of married life is the correct one, which means, of course, we are trying to convince them that they are wrong. So every month, for example, when it is time to pay bills, we present our argument for being right with more justifying examples and even more emotion. Unfortunately, our spouse often does the same, and truthfully, we rarely ever succeed in convincing someone that our values and priorities are right while theirs are wrong.
The good news is, we don’t have to. Dr. Gottman’s research shows that the way we go about these perpetual conflicts is more important for the health of our marriage than the actual resolution. When we accept that the conflict is rooted in different and subjective values and priorities, we can lay down the effort to be right. We can embrace the marital wisdom, “When only one of us wins, we both lose,” and we are free then to engage in discussion with the health of the relationship as our first priority.
…but how do you do that?
- First identify that this is one of your “perpetual conflicts.” Decide together to make the issue be the issue (instead of your spouse being the issue) and to discuss the matter as teammates instead.
- Get clear about your respective core needs and your areas of flexibility. Share these core needs in positive statements, starting with phrases like, “It’s important to me that…”
- Listen to your spouse. Remember that behind his or her negative emotions, there is a longing and a wish. Listen to find the dream that lies behind the emotion.
- Validate your spouse by completing a sentence like, “It makes sense to me that you would feel that way and have these needs, because…”
- Postpone sharing your feelings and core needs until you have confirmed that your partner believes that you understand their core needs and feelings.
- If either of you begins to feel emotionally flooded, practice self-soothing. Breathe, and take a break of at least 30 minutes without rehearsing the thoughts that are maintaining your distress. Then, switch roles.
- Now, compromise on how you will both address this issue together.
Often there will be hurt and resentment that has built up around these issues that can complicate your ability to do all of this successfully. Sitting with a trained therapist can be a great way to heal these emotional wounds and open the door to learning. When we’re able to successfully manage these perpetual conflicts, they will no longer be able to create painful and frustrating experiences. Instead, they will create the repeated experience of being trustworthy teammates.
If you and your partner are struggling to move past the same conflict and could use the support of a professional, reach out to us through our admissions department here. All communications are confidential.
About the Author
Tad Bodeman, MA, LMSW is a clinician at Ethos Behavioral Health Group whose focus is serving individuals and couples with issues of the heart and trauma, easing human sadness and loneliness and fostering joy, peace and intimacy. He has over 36 years of combined clinical and executive-level business experience and is clinically trained in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, The Gottman Method, Psychodynamic Psychotherapy and clinical social work. Tad has been married for more than 35 years and is father to an adult daughter and son.