Most of us, when we marry, have an understanding that we will have some disagreements, but we cannot imagine ourselves having relationship-threatening levels of conflict. We trust that, because we are so well suited, we will bypass the really serious conflict experienced by our parents or others we’ve known. And if we do have problems, they will be resolved quickly. After all, in an age where technology sends the message that the solution is at your fingertips, the belief is that things should get better fast. Problems in marriage should get better fast. Underlying these expectations is the assumption that conflict is harmful and to be avoided. All conflict is not harmful and some conflict is unavoidable.
Confronting the myth that happy marriages have little to no conflict is necessary in order to embrace the reality of life together. Marital researcher, John Gottman, challenges this myth with his findings regarding conflict in marriage. After studying over 650 couples over the course of 14 years, he found that 69% of the problems couples have are perpetual problems, meaning they will remain problems for the life of the marriage. Successful couples learn to talk about their problems and engage in conflict in ways that don’t damage the relationship. The issue is how they argue, not if they argue. Happily married couples can have significant differences in personality, interests, habits and perspectives. They are not surprised by the presence of conflict but learn to negotiate it in a way that remains respectful.
Psychologist Dan Wile in his book, After the Honeymoon, states: “When choosing a long-term partner… you will inevitable be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty or fifty years.” Discouraging? I don’t think so. Embracing the notion that certain differences will likely never go away helps to let go of the need to convince your partner that your way is right and compel you to find a way of talking about the issue without harming each other.
Gary and I have had a perpetual problem since having children. He has wanted to give the children whatever they needed and I wanted the children to earn what they enjoyed. Early on, I called him an “enabler” and he called me a “tight wad”. (Name calling made us feel so right!) Gary came from a home of five children and didn’t have a lot, so he enjoyed giving to our kids. I came from a home with a strong ethic that we had to work hard for what we enjoyed. I wanted our kids to learn to work hard and become financially responsible. Over time, when we came to understand the influence of our histories and accept that we would have perpetual problems, we began to discuss the issue with more compassion. I now see Gary as a generous provider and he sees me as a concerned parent. We have learned to talk and come to decisions that value both of our needs and concerns.
Conflict is not only inevitable, it is essential to the deepest levels of intimacy you can experience with your mate. Because every couple comes to marriage with experiences, histories, preferences, beliefs that are different, conflict is the natural way they begin to navigate their respective positions. It is our differences, and the conflict that occurs because of them, that are the instruments God uses to confront our selfishness, soften our edges, and shape us into the people He desires we become.
What are your beliefs about conflict? How was conflict experienced in your home growing up? Your spouses home? Have you found a way to engage in conflict without hurting one another? If not, stay tuned. If so, congratulations! You are on your way to deeper levels of intimate connection.