All relationships have conflict; none is completely conflict-free.  The difference between successful and unsuccessful relationships is not necessarily in the degree or frequency of conflict.  The difference is in the repair: how the couple manages to heal the rupture in a mutually satisfying and affirming way.

HEALTHY CONFLICT RESOLUTION BRINGS SATISFACTION:  With the healthy couple, repair leaves both partners feeling heard, understood, and respected.  Generally, their tie is strengthened and the tone and affective resonance of their relationship is improved.

FAILING TO RESOLVE CONFLICT ERODES THE RELATIONSHIP:  While the unhealthy couple may similarly be engaging in attempts to repair, they falter, often unable to surmount the challenges of processing what went wrong. Typically, one or both partners feels misunderstood or dismissed.  If there’s an attempt to talk things through, neither partner really knows how to keep the conversation on track in order to arrive at a satisfying conclusion.  Often the conversation becomes too heated, and the couple is once again embroiled in conflict.  Or, to avoid this, one partner might concede or capitulate.  While in the short term this may bring the conflict to an end, the capitulating partner is often left with a sense of unfairness and resentment.  In the long run, the failure to resolve infects the relationship and erodes good will, trust and empathy.

WHY IS REPAIRING CONFLICT OR RUPTURE SO DIFFICULT?

Here are a few reasons:

  1. There is an unstated rule governing the couple in conflict that there’s only room for one position.
  2. Both parties feel so injured and so unrecognized that neither can consider acknowledging the other’s position.
  3. Each partner is convinced that the other is solely responsible for the conflict.
  4. Each partner feels that recognition is the same as agreement and that to recognize the other means to give up one’s position.
  5. The couple engages in punitive measures, punishing each other even when an apology is offered.
  6. Neither partner knows how to listen respectfully.

WHAT CHANGES ARE NEEDED TO IMPROVE OUTCOME?

Here are a few observations and suggestions:

  1. Emotional generosity is always part of the solution.  Soften the resentment by showing your willingness to consider the other’s position.  Invite conversation.  Don’t interrupt your partner.
  2. Consider standing in the shoes of your partner to view the conflict from his/her position.  Can you feel what they’re feeling?  Tell your partner you want to see things from their angle.
  3. Don’t give in to the temptation to stonewall, to be critical or sarcastic, to be dismissive, or to be contemptuous.  You’ll find yourself once again in conflict.
  4. Get Help. Good marriage counseling or couples counseling can make a difference.  A skilled marriage counselor can teach you and your partner how to communicate.  He or she can guide you both in learning healthy ways to talk and listen to each other.  An experienced marriage counselor can help you both understand the unique issues that plague your relationship and can help to you both negotiate a satisfying resolution.