How Conflict Can Improve Your Marriage

6 Practices that Build Connection.

Blame. Criticism. Shouting matches. Silent treatments.

I admit I have done them all. It feels horrible when I have allowed arguments to escalate to this level—wasting precious time and energy. Yet, what if conflict doesn’t have to be a waste of time and energy? What if we viewed conflict as an opportunity for us to grow, facilitate change, and build the kind of connection we long for?

I find it comforting that studies have proved couples who argue are actually happier and more satisfied than couples who do not. Rest assured, conflict can be a good thing! The key lies in approaching conflicts in ways that are constructive and ensure a successful outcome.

Here are five practices that have helped me to approach conflict as an opportunity to grow, facilitate change, and build the kind of connection I long for:

1. Approach conflict constructively.

The outcome of my arguments can often be predicted by the way I approach my husband in the first couple of minutes.

Marriage researcher John Gottman, in his years of studying couples, found that “how we approach a potential conflict in the first three minutes determines if the argument will escalate or actually go somewhere constructive”.

When we are angry, our first reaction may be to attack our spouse with criticism and blame. Most of the time, this approach backfires— putting our partner on the defensive and therefore, not getting the response or outcome that we had hoped.

No matter how “right” we feel we are, or “how wrong” our partner may seem to be, accusing and criticizing is not productive. Furthermore, we need to learn to walk away and cool down. It only takes five minutes to gain perspective.

2. Be curious about your anger.

Anger is a secondary emotion. By secondary emotion, I mean that anger is a powerful emotion we use to cover up more vulnerable feelings that lie below the surface. Oftentimes, underneath our anger we are feeling hurt, sad and needing something. Understanding our feelings allows us to better express ourselves.

3. Share your feelings using “I” statements.  

When we use “I” statements to share our feelings, we are less likely to criticize and put our spouse on the defensive. For example:

“I’m feeling lonely and want to spend some time with you.”

rather than…

“You only want to watch tv. You could care less about me. You only think about yourself!” 

4. Figure out what you want and ask for it directly.

Ladies, we need to directly ask our partners for what we want from them. Men do not get it. Really, they don’t. We have to train them and tell them what it is that we want without placing the blame for not knowing. Remember “Men are from Mars”? Well, they are!

Next time the opportunity presents itself, ask…

“I want to spend time with you.”

Then, make a request.

Don’t wait for them to come up with the answer. They probably won’t and it doesn’t make them bad guys. After all, they are from Mars. We need to be intentional and proactive. It is our responsibility to create the outcomes we want. You might say…

“I want us to go on a date this Friday. I am going to make reservations.”

And remember, men want to be wanted. We need to remember this. I am convinced that it is easier for us to criticize and blame our spouses than to take the risk of asking. In my experience, this seems to be one of the biggest challenges we women struggle with. Why?

It is vulnerable to ask for what we want. First of all, we have to figure out what we want. Many of us, have been so busy taking care of everyone else we never take the time to ask ourselves what we want. Secondly, if we ask, they may say “no”. And for most of us, we don’t like rejection.

5. Take the risk and do it for you.

Sharing our emotions, gaining clarity about our desires and asking for it—it’s all part of sharing who we are. This allows our true self to be known. Yes, it does takes courage and we have the ability to be courageous! Expressing our needs, wants and desires affirms who we are. It also allows our husband to know us in a deeper way.

marriage conflict6. Pay attention to your thoughts and be inquisitive.

It’s easy to point the finger at our spouse as the cause of our marital dissatisfaction. We tend to believe that it’s our husband’s behavior that makes us angry or causes us stress. In fact, it may not be the behavior itself but rather the underlying messages we interpret about their behavior.

The other evening, after preparing a nice meal, I asked my husband, “Are you coming to join me for dinner?”. He surprisingly declined my offer. I was angry and hurt. Here’s the thing. It was less about his lack of explanation and more about how I interpreted his reasoning. Underneath his “no” I felt like I didn’t matter enough to him. I felt disrespected and not valued.

In this particular situation, there were plenty of other ways I could have interpreted his “no”. However, once I shared my feelings and my interpretation of his response, here is what he shared with me:

At the time, he was listening to my son’s college baseball game and didn’t want to miss it. He also ate a late lunch and really wasn’t hungry—actually dieting and trying to lose a few pounds. Lastly, he had a stressful day at work and completely needed the downtime to be alone—he is an introvert.

Interestingly enough, none of these reasons had to do with me. That is why we need to challenge our thoughts and validate them to determine if anger is warranted.

Conflicts can actually be positive when we learn to approach them constructively—using “I” statements, sharing our feelings, asking directly for what we want, being curious about our thoughts and finding out if they are true. I encourage us to embrace conflict not as something to be avoided, rather, as an opportunity to grow, understand ourselves and build deeper connections with our spouse.

Questions: What have you found challenging when faced with a conflict? What approaches have been helpful?

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