This is a great question! Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just leave all the past behind, turn over a new leaf, and start afresh?
Most couples have problems and difficulties that they’ve been through and are trying to put behind them. Some of you might even have serious issues in your past that are still causing you pain and affecting your marriage today. And so you may be wondering if it’s possible to move on from difficulties in your marriage without bringing up all these issues again. Is it possible to leave past conflict unresolved and still have a happy marriage?
Turns out it’s not a simple “yes” or “no” answer.
For those of you that are new to the site, we speak to marriage issues out of a Christian worldview but what makes our approach unique is that there’s a ton of research in psychological journals that becomes part of our content.
So when we come to a question like this we aim to give you a very balanced, reliable recommendation that is going to truly help you move forward in your marriage. Because that’s our goal: to help you create thriving, passionate marriage. And if you are reading this it is probably because you don’t have that but you want it. And we want to help you get there!
How Unresolved Conflict Impacts Marriage
A good starting question is: can you have a happy marriage while leaving past arguments or differences unresolved?
It turns out that unresolved conflict does not appear to impact the duration of your marriage. But: it is negatively correlated to relationship satisfaction. Meaning that as the amount of unresolved conflict increases, it might not lead to the complete breakdown of your relationship but you’re probably going to become less satisfied with your marriage[i].
What is interesting is that this researcher then factored conflict out of the equation. You can do this with multifactorial analysis to pinpoint what exactly is causing the effect that you’ve observed. And when the amount of conflict (or frequency of arguments) was removed from the equation, the satisfaction still went down. Meaning that it truly is about the fact that things are left unresolved: this is the key factor, not the conflict itself.
But the researcher did have something to conclude about conflict styles: the more unresolved conflict, the more negative conflict styles were present. When higher levels of unresolved conflict were present in couples he observed more things like withdrawal during arguments, escalating small issues into arguments, etc. Which makes sense. Not dealing with stuff causes a buildup of pressure so that when things do spill over into an argument it’s going to be more extreme and all these other unresolved issues are going to get thrown in as well. Poor communication strategies are likely to follow. As another researcher put it: “To leave conflict unresolved is a risky course of action. An unresolved conflict could fester to the point of causing an explosion.[ii]”
So the evidence says: resolving conflict is better than leaving it unresolved. And I think most of us know that on an intuitive level: we have to deal with the things that just aren’t going away.
But: there is also some research to indicate that avoiding conflict (and even leaving things unresolved) may be a good idea if your conflict style is very negative and volatile. If you really do not have any functional, adaptable ways of resolving issues then you may need to contain the fallout. In that case, leaving things unresolved may be the lesser of two evils[iii].
That’s fine for the research to point out but I would still contend that if this is your situation it would be better to learn those skills. Read a book, get some counselling: do something to help you guys learn how to resolve conflict. I just cannot see this working out well in the long term even as I understand and acknowledge why it may be helpful in the short term. Avoiding conflict because your way of dealing with it is so destructive doesn’t sound like a healthy, sustainable marriage, so if you find yourself doing this then get help with learning new conflict-resolution skills.
Of course, I’m assuming we’re not talking about an abusive marriage here. Avoiding conflict becomes a whole new topic when any form of abuse is involved. Remember that abuse isn’t always as obvious as physical violence; verbal and emotional abuse resulting from conflict are serious issues that need to be identified and addressed. We’ve written a series of posts on abuse and part 1 was all about how to tell if you’re in an abusive marriage, so give that a read if you’re concerned this may be an issue in your marriage.
3 Ways to Avoid Conflict
There’s three avoidance strategies that we probably all use at some point or another. They can actually be helpful but they can also be quite unhelpful too!
Withholding is simply not mentioning it when your partner does something that you find aggravating. This solution works best for minor grievances and when used to avoid raising minor day to day issues was positively correlated with relationship satisfaction.
However, the offending spouse still has no idea they have done something to upset the other spouse and so the behavior will likely persist[iv].
This may work best for concerns that aren’t worth addressing right now. Or, maybe it’s something that you feel just happened as a one-off situation. But generally, for bigger issues or recurring problems, simply refraining from mentioning them isn’t a great idea as it just leads to that festering low level of dissatisfaction that’s liable to blow up.
Suppression is avoiding talking about the past issue or withdrawing once your partner has initiated the discussion. This can be done by pretending to agree with what your spouse is saying so as to stop the argument, minimizing the importance of the issue they have raised, or outright avoiding/leaving the conversation (stonewalling).
Personally I find this hard to take in the moment because I feel disconnection from myself and the other person. I prefer to put something on the table.
However, the researcher noted that minimizing the importance of a past issue and focusing on “shared values which tied them together which overwhelm the importance of the past conflict” was a trait observed in some happily married couples.
So it does appear to work for some couples. I think there’s value in the idea that sometimes we do need to declare a truce over an issue and then maybe agree to leave it until we feel like we are more equipped to come back to it. If used with restraint, it can be a way to remind yourself about the positive, get unstuck, and move forward.
However, if you’re doing this constantly it becomes the elephant (or herd of elephants) in the room that nobody wants to mention.
Declaring a Topic Taboo
This is the next notch up from suppressing arguments. Declaring a topic taboo happens when you mutually decide not to ever talk about a certain issue for the good of the relationship.
Deciding that a certain issue is totally off limits is probably something you’ll only consider for major issues, maybe after having tried and failed to come to any kind of resolution. But as a strategy for dealing with these major problems it isn’t always successful.
Explicitly agreeing that you aren’t going to talk about an issue is problematic because it means acknowledging that there is an unresolved issue that you are unable or unwilling to solve.
On the other hand, deciding not to argue about something can be done based on selectively disclosing your position to your spouse without attempting to persuade them of your point of view. In our post about why it’s important to stop bottling things up we created a guide for how to approach irreconcilable differences; issues that aren’t going anywhere and are unlikely to ever get solved. There was a similar idea there about continually sharing your own perspective without trying to change your spouse’s mind or persuade them. This ongoing discussion might be a better idea than simply making something taboo.
Declaring topics or past issues as taboo was negatively correlated with relationship satisfaction in terms of both the number of taboo subjects and the extent to which they were made explicit[v].
However, relationship commitment moderated this effect to the point where taboo topics did not significantly affect relationship quality in high-commitment couples. Implicit decisions to make some subjects taboo were less linked to low marriage satisfaction and were present in some happily married couples.
So you can see many of these strategies kind of work and kind of don’t. It is a mixed bag. It is probably very nuanced from couple to couple and even issue to issue with that couple. Sometimes you can both live with designating a subject as taboo and loving everything else about being married to each other. Sometimes you cannot.
So these are examples of how you may be able to fix your marriage, or parts of it, without dredging up the past. On the other hand the research is also showing this likely isn’t going to work for everything in your past. And I’m guessing: the larger the issue, the less likely it is to work out for the benefit of your marriage.
Starting Over Without Resolving the Past
So what about the whole turn-over-a-new-leaf thing? Can you just put everything behind you?
Personally I think this is pretty unlikely to succeed. The reason being is that your relationship is a matrix of perspectives and behavior. You act and react towards your spouse. You perceive and interpret and make meaning out of each other’s words and actions. These form a matrix defined by your experiences of each other over the years.
So you can decide to put all history in the past and close that book but you still have this matrix. And the next time your spouse repeats some problematic behavior, the matrix will activate to help you make sense of what you’re seeing and you’re probably going to respond in the same old way. You may have consciously decided to try and forget the past but your unconscious perceptions of your spouse and interpretations of their behavior haven’t changed. Which means you really haven’t moved forward at all, nor have you actually turned over a new leaf.
I’m sorry — but I don’t think it’ll work.
HOWEVER. If you want to try anyways, here are some factors from a study done in 1999 that may help this work[vi]:
- High levels of tolerance and open mindedness.
- Coping devices- finding positive things to hold on to in the marriage.
- Selective conflict avoidance- you can’t avoid ALL past issues
- Avoidance must be freely chosen by both spouses, rather than one spouse being coerced into not talking about something.
- Employ good communication skills- “Unlike unhappily married conflict avoiders, the happy ones moderate their use of avoidance and supplement it with positive communication behaviors. They try to understand and accept each other’s perspective”.
- You need to be good at observing your partner and helping them solve issues without being asked- if you have decided not to talk about certain issues then you need to be good at taking the perspective of your spouse, noticing when they are unhappy and resolving it without being asked.
So there’s some ideas for you. What do you think? I know for me, it may get you a ways but I do believe you have to learn to communicate and learn to resolve conflict.
Keep the Kids in Mind. There is one important sidebar here. Our children are watching us. Did you know that unresolved conflict negatively impacts children?
One study noted that witnessing arguments and episodes of anger that were left unresolved increased distress and sadness levels for children of all ages (5-19) compared to witnessing arguments that were resolved[vii].
Also the sense of conflicts being left unresolved or escalating was linked to higher levels of fear in young children[viii]. It’s easy to see how unresolved issues could create a tense, slightly volatile environment around the home, and young children are highly susceptible to this sort of thing.
I’m not saying this to guilt anyone but just to encourage the importance of learning to resolve conflict well.
Addressing Unresolved Conflict
Once again we’ve created an added resource for our much appreciated supporters. This document is additional training on resolving these unresolved issues: it will show you how to prepare for the conversation, start the conversation, and keep moving forward during the conversation.
This should be really helpful if there are things in the history of your marriage that you still feel raw about and want to see them closed in a way you’re both happy with. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Ways To Move On From Past Issues
If leaving things unresolved is generally a bad idea, how do we move forward? Or more precisely, where does a couple start? How do they know what they should address first, or what is most important to address?
It’s a good question. Sometimes if you solve larger or key issues, the other ones disappear and lose their importance because now the couple feels more together, more understood, and so on.
I have three questions you can ask yourself about the unresolved issues you’re facing from your past.
Is It Influential?
If the issue has been formational with regards to trust, how you see yourself or your spouse, you need to revisit it. On the other hand if it happened, you don’t like it, but your relationship hasn’t ended up organizing/orienting itself around it, you may choose to let it go. Basically if you can see the effect something is having on your marriage it’s probably something worth addressing again.
Do We Just Need to Face It?
Talking about difficult issues is hard and often leads to the use of negative communication styles even if couples can talk about minor issues effectively[ix].
Even if you’re generally good at dealing with conflict there might still be that one sore spot or that one issue that you keep getting hung up on and can’t seem to talk about constructively. How about learning some skills first and then coming back to the issue? You both know it’s there. You could agree to prepare for it by both reading a book that is on point for that topic. Or by listening to past episodes of our podcast on conflict. Or hiring a counselor and saying, we have this one big issue, we need your help.
There are a lot of resources available to you.
It may be you just need to agree to address this one even though it might be tough. With a few hard conversations you can get through this. On the other hand if you’ve tried to address this in the past and it has never worked, or if it feels like it is tied into deeper, overwhelming issues, that’s a signal to get some outside help.
What Do You Want?
If you are the spouse looking for resolution, it will help greatly if you start by defining what resolution looks like. You can’t change the past, so that is fixed. That being the case: what then are you seeking? Do you want to just be heard and acknowledged? Do you want something to change now and for the future? Do you want amends to be made?
Sometimes it can be really helpful when we stop and really work on getting clarity on our own on what an ideal outcome would look like, then disclosing that to your spouse as you start the conversation. Just saying, “Look I know we can’t change what happened but I’m going back to this simply because I want to be acknowledged, heard and understood.” or saying “I just want you to hear me, and if you feel ready, make an empathic apology from the heart or, if there’s something I did that I need to apologize for, let me know that too.” Saying “if I have XYZ then I believe I can move on from this” sets a clear target or desired outcome that you both can work towards.
Did that answer the question? It’s a straightforward question but I think it’s a nuanced answer. Simply put, no I don’t think you can fix your marriage without going back to the past at least somewhat.
I think what frustrates spouses the most is keeping on going back to the same issue and never getting resolution. I get why that’s frustrating. But again, the alternative of just moving forward and forgetting about it is probably just a pipe dream. It’s just a pipe dream because there’s something back there that hasn’t been healed.
But: leaving the marriage is not a good outcome either. So it’s worth finding ways to approach these past hurts and allowing them to heal, even if the process is difficult. And if you can’t fix it: reach out for help. You don’t have to do this alone.
[i] Duncan Cramer, ‘Relationship Satisfaction and Conflict Style in Romantic Relationships’, The Journal of Psychology, 134.3 (2000), 337–41 <https://doi.org/10.1080/00223980009600873>.
[ii] Sandra Petronio, Balancing the Secrets of Private Disclosures (Routledge, 1999).
[v] Michael E. Roloff and Danette Ifert, ‘Antecedents and Consequences of Explicit Agreements to Declare a Topic Taboo in Dating Relationships’, Personal Relationships, 5.2 (1998), 191–205.
[vii] E. Mark Cummings and others, ‘Resolution and Children’s Responses to Interadult Anger.’, Developmental Psychology, 27.3 (1991), 462–70 <https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-16184.108.40.2062>.
[viii] Kalsea J. Koss and others, ‘Understanding Children’s Emotional Processes and Behavioral Strategies in the Context of Marital Conflict’, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 109.3 (2011), 336–52 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2011.02.007>.
[ix] Keith Sanford, ‘Problem-Solving Conversations in Marriage: Does It Matter What Topics Couples Discuss?’, Personal Relationships, 10.1 (2003), 97–112 <https://doi.org/10.1111/1475-6811.00038>.