Resolve Conflicts Without Fighting

by John Bosio

When Teri and I were engaged, we were so in love with each other that we thought we would never have any conflicts in our marriage. We thought that we would agree most of the time, or if we disagreed, we would accommodate each other amicably.  That was nice, but far from real.  Marriage is the place where two people bring together their unique personalities, with their gifts and talents and their quirks, and habits.  Married life is the blending of two worlds to make a new one, hopefully a better one.  Love brings us close and the closer we come the more we are aware of our differences.  In marriage there is no way to escape the conflicts created by our differences.  They are inevitable and uncomfortable, and yet they are necessary.  It is through the resolution of our conflicts that we make room for each other in our life, and we become one.  Researchers are finding that the way couples manage their conflicts marks the difference between success and failure in marriage.

Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist who studied couples for over 40 years writes that all couples have conflicts and 69% of these are unsolvable and will be recurring during the marriage.  Gottman’s advice to couples is to approach each conflict, even the recurring ones, with an attitude of acceptance and understanding toward one’s spouse.  If your spouse perceives that you are making an effort to understand his/her feelings or point of view, you have already taken the first step toward accommodating each other’s differences.   On the other hand, if your spouse feels judged, misunderstood, or rejected, the interaction can quickly become explosive.

There are four simple steps that Gottman advices couples to take when they encounter a conflict.  These suggestions are taken from his book: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

1. “Soften your start up” When bringing up a touchy subject, do not start by criticizing, accusing or attacking your spouse.   He recommends that you use a “Soft start up.”  A “Soft start up” begins with “I” instead of “You.”  Through your statement describe what YOU think, or feel, or want without accusing or judging your spouse.  Gottman gives the following example: “I would like it if you’d listen to me.”  Instead of “You are not listening to me.”  Be clear and polite.

2. “Learn to Make Repair Attempts” Unfortunately when we are upset and our feelings well up, we may start a conversation with a harsh tone, one that may come across as an accusation.  This can create defensiveness in your spouse and can easily lead the two of you down the wrong path.  When this happens, it is necessary to find a way to stop your conversation and to restart it with a more friendly tone.  Gottman call this action a “repair attempt.”  A repair attempt can be a word or phrase that you and your spouse agree to use when you want to stop or to simply change the tone of a conversation that is spiraling toward disaster.  For example you can say: “Can we start over again?” or “I am feeling very uncomfortable, can we take a break?”   It may be that you have chosen to address a conflict at a time when your spouse is not ready to have that conversation.  He/she may be already preoccupied with something else.  Be aware of timing, when you choose to bring up a difficult subject.

3. “Sooth yourself and Each Other” As mentioned above, there may be times when the best course of action is to take a break.  If you cannot resume the conversation shortly, schedule a time, when you will address the problem. Gottman suggest a break of at least 20 minutes.  Spend this time doing something that is soothing to you.  Then resume your conversation using a “soft start up,” one that begins with “I,” and expresses your feelings without blaming the other person, even if the other person is at fault.  Just state how you feel.  

4. “Compromise”  Gottman writes: “Like it or not, the only solution to marital problems is to find a compromise.”

Managing daily conflicts is every couple’s challenge.  Learning to resolve them through good communication is one of the most important and difficult tasks spouses need to master.  Yes, it is possible to learn to resolve our conflicts without fighting, it requires courage and self control; the courage to speak up, and the self control to say what you want in a way that your spouse can hear it.  There are many helpful books and articles to show us how.

Christian couples have the benefit of God’s grace and the Christian outlook on this sacred relationship that is marriage.  Approaching our conflicts with a Christian attitude helps us be generous and kind toward our spouse, and it opens our heart to receive God’s graces.  St. John Paul II said in one of his homilies: “Jesus does not stand by and leave you alone to face the challenge.  He is always with you to transform your weakness into strength.”

A wife we know, shared with us her secret for dealing with conflicts.  She said that before approaching her husband to discuss a difficult subject, she says a prayer to the Holy Spirit, asking his help in saying the right words; words that her husband will hear without shutting down; words that will lead to a useful conversation.


Question for Reflection: Which points in this article do you find most helpful?