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Why Conflict Can Actually Make Your Marriage Better

Published:
June 10, 2024
June 10, 2024
Read to learn about why and how healthy conflict can be good for your marriage.

At first, my husband and I avoided conflict at all costs. We even wrote letters during our dating years to discuss disagreements because starting in-person conversations felt too overwhelming. We just weren’t practiced in it. One of us viewed any conflict as a failure. And the other saw the initiation of any conflict as abusive aggression. 

As good as our intentions were, avoiding conflict made things more difficult for our marriage in the long run because conflict itself is good. I’m not talking about poor conflict resolution styles — conflict that is managed poorly is clearly destructive for a relationship. But conflict in and of itself is just a difference that you encounter with your partner, which is to be totally expected because you’re two different human beings. Of course you’ll have different preferences and expectations.

So how can conflict be a good thing for a marriage? Conflict is evidence of honest sharing. Where there is honesty, there is hope for genuine collaboration and connection — the foundation for a life-giving marriage. If one or both partners are avoiding saying the disagreeable, hard realities they are experiencing out of fear or manipulation, they are essentially disappearing from that part of the relationship. And the love that makes marriage tick is the kind that shares every part of life — not just the areas where we naturally agree. 

So how do we wade into conflict constructively? Marriage psychologists Drs. John and Julie Gottman have some ideas.

Start where you can

In hindsight, it seems dysfunctional that my partner and I wrote each other letters to avoid conflict, but actually it was better than not talking at all because it was evidence of an earnest desire to come together. Writing things down gave us the ability to gather our overwhelming thoughts and share them in an orderly medium that we could both then reference and discuss. 

Sharing notes didn’t last forever as we both grew in courage and became practiced in talking together over time, but it was a place to start. Find what works for you and have the humility to make special allowances for each other. Few are born great communicators; without the ability to practice, we cannot grow. 

Ritualize sharing

Set up a safe, dedicated time for a regular check-in conversation that happens at the same time (whether daily, weekly, or monthly). You might go so far as to set an agenda for that meeting that you can add to as time passes. 

The benefit here is that you’re creating a space where you know you’ll be able to talk about challenges together, and if it’s a regular time, you don’t have to start a difficult conversation out of the blue — you’ll both enter the discussion prepared to give and receive feedback, and ready to work toward a solution. 

This method also offers a release valve: you don’t have to address every conflictual event in the moment. When something annoying happens, add it to the agenda and talk about it when you both have clear heads. 

Set a time limit or safety word

Starting to feel overwhelmed or like you are being flooded with a fight-or-flight response? If emotions are derailing the conversation, take a break. Agree on a time limit for the conversation, or create a safety word or hand signal that communicates to the other person that you are reaching your limit. Respect these boundaries remembering that each time you practice them, you will be growing stronger in your ability to engage in conflict well. 

Allow for redirection

Ever blurt out something you wish you hadn’t when you are feeling overwhelmed or cornered? Allow for grace and mercy when you or your partner needs to make a conversational u-turn: “Hey, I misspoke just then. I’m sorry. What I meant to say is ...” Chances are good that you’ll need their goodwill at some point as well.  

Prioritize the setting

Decide ahead of time whether you both do better talking about difficult subjects in a public or private setting. Which is more productive and safe for both of you? What about the time of day, or the day of the week? Which room of your living space is most calm and orderly? 

Attend to other factors as well: are you hungry or tired or stressed? Strategize around those dynamics and set yourself up for success. You can acknowledge the need for a conversation, but agree to open it up after dinner if the time isn’t right. 

Of course, you can’t always pick the setting for when conflict arises — but when you can, make it count. Everything you can do to be more present and more focused will only help. 

Avoid the “four horsemen”

One of the Gottmans’ most famous breakthroughs is recognizing the four horsemen of bad arguments: common conflict practices that drag everyone into the worst versions of themselves. Avoid criticism, contempt, harsh argument start-ups, and silent stonewalling when conflict arises. 

Seeing conflict as a good thing takes time and effort. We have to train ourselves to walk toward a messy conversation and not away from it. Keep in mind that healthy conflict means more connection, more honesty, and therefore more intimacy with your partner. It is this willingness to walk into the messiness of life together that makes for a deep and meaningful connection that can last a lifetime.

Creators:
Amelia Ruggaber
Published:
June 10, 2024
June 10, 2024
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