How To Address the Inevitable Conflicts in Marriage

Try to remember: Conflict happens in every relationship, and it’s a myth to believe that in a happy relationship, you’ll get along all the time.  Relationship conflict serves a purpose.  It’s an opportunity to get to know your partner better and to develop deeper intimacy as you talk about and work through your differences.

A happy relationship isn’t the result of having a lot of things in common–as we often think.  It comes from knowing how to address your core differences in a way that supports each other’s needs and dreams.  This is how trust is sustained.  Trust is cherishing each other and showing your partner that you can be counted on.  Choosing commitment means accepting your partner exactly as he or she is, despite their flaws.

According to Gottman’s research, it is a myth that happily married people don’t complain about each other’s behavior.  We all have our own idiosyncratic needs, desires, rhythms, and habits.  And these needs are bound to collide, producing strong emotions.

Constantly stifling your complaints is not a good idea.  Doing so can cause you to hold on to angry, resentful feelings toward your partner.  You may develop a state of mind we call “negative sentiment override,” where your bad thoughts about your partner override any positive thoughts about them.  You may then begin to stockpile your grievances.  Your negative feelings fester and grow resulting in one of two outcomes:  You either distance yourself emotionally to avoid the pain or you lash out.,  Either alternative leads to further emotional distance.

There is an alternative to either stifling or exploding, however.  Partners can learn to express their needs (i.e., complain) in ways that are respectful(in tone), clear, and specific.  When you do this, your partner is more likely to hear your complaint and respond to it if you express it in this way, and complaining in a healthy way actually helps to solve problems, build intimacy and strengthen the relationship.

Examples: (from Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage, John and Julie Gottman)

Healthy Complaining: We haven’t been able to afford a vacation in two years. Maybe we should work out a better budget. What do you think?  

Harmful Complaining: You know why we haven’t had a vacation for two years??  Because you don’t save….you waste our money on stupid things all the time, on things for yourself!

Healthy Complaining:  You know, I thought we were going to have a romantic evening together, and you invited your mother.  I love your mother, but I have to admit I feel a little hurt and disappointed. Can we try another evening? 

Harmful Complaining:  I thought we were going to have a romantic evening together and you invited your mother!! How can you be such a clueless, insensitive dolt?!

Healthy Complaining: Pick a time to complain about the problem when your partner can listen and respond. 

Harmful Complaining: Complain at times when your partner is distracted by pressing matters such as a deadline or caring for small children.

In summary: Complain without criticizing and look for the longing in each other’s complaints.  Then express and accept appreciation for the empathetic understanding.     Jim Covington

Happy marriages begin when we marry the ones we love and they blossom when we love the ones we marry.

Picture of Jim Covington

Jim Covington

Jim Covington (M.Div. MA, LMFT) has been helping couples improve their relationships for more than 30 years. He holds degrees are in psychology and theology, is a licensed New York marriage and family therapist, a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists and has been trained in multiple approaches to marital/couples therapy and family therapy.

He has completed Level 3 Practicum Training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy, externship training with the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples and PREP (Prevention & Relationship Enhancement Program), and employs Solution Oriented Brief Therapy as taught by Michelle Weiner-Davis.
Picture of Jim Covington

Jim Covington

Jim Covington (M.Div. MA, LMFT) has been helping couples improve their relationships for more than 30 years. He holds degrees are in psychology and theology, is a licensed New York marriage and family therapist, a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists and has been trained in multiple approaches to marital/couples therapy and family therapy.

He has completed Level 3 Practicum Training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy, externship training with the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples and PREP (Prevention & Relationship Enhancement Program), and employs Solution Oriented Brief Therapy as taught by Michelle Weiner-Davis.