Most of us have the wrong idea about conflict in marriage.

We fear the conflict could lead to the disintegration of our marriage.

That’s a reasonable fear, in many ways. But we paint with too broad a brush. You see, it’s not the conflict itself that puts the marriage at risk but rather the behaviours within the conflict.

If you’re just jumping into this series, this episode and show notes are the third in a series of 4 on fighting in marriage. In the first show, we talked about why fighting is good for your marriage. Then we went over fighting styles in the second episode: some work and some do not! You want to be sure to have a style that isn’t destroying your marriage.

In today’s episode, we’re interested in the actual behaviors that we engage in while we fight because those can take a marriage down over time too.

Long Term Ground Rules for Fighting

We need to have a long view of marriage. Conflict is inevitable and so it is going to come again and again. But did you know that there are behaviors you can engage in that will strangle your affection and love over time? They are:

  1. Exploding and getting out of control
  2. Just giving in to your spouse on the issue – every time
  3. Withdrawing during conflict: shutting down and refusing to talk

These three behaviors were identified by Hanzal and Segrin (2009) as being particularly dysfunctional over the long term. They will wear down your spouse, leaving him or her less and less able to deal with them over time.

Wives are particularly sensitive to this.

You see, husbands react more to in-the-moment behaviors. They get stressed but then they calm down.

Wives in conflict develop a stress load that just builds and builds. They carry their marital conflict history with them and then begin to get charged up more quickly facing future discussions.

So being explosive, or just caving in every time, or withdrawing are all ways to alienate your spouse. Why? Because there is no actual resolution to the issue that prompted the conflict.

The long term ground rules that you and your spouse agree on should include a commitment to keeping one’s self under control during conflict as well as being dedicated to seeing an issue through to resolution.

Behave Yourself!

There are three categories of behavior that occur during fighting, and I came across an article from the Journal of Marriage & Family (October 2010) that explained them nicely:

  1. Destructive: include overtly negative reactions to marital problems such as yelling, insults, criticism, belligerence, and contempt.
  2. Constructive: involve overtly positive reactions such as saying nice things, calmly discussing the problem and actively listening.
  3. Withdrawal: entail disengaging from the conflict or person and may include things like leaving the situation entirely or just checking out by keeping quiet.

On the positive side, constructive behaviors actually lead to spouses feeling better and more satisfied with the marriage.

On the other hand, destructive behaviors in both newlyweds and longer married couples predicted divorce up to seven years later. “Predicted” is a keyword there: it means that an increased presence of the destructive behaviors showed a higher probability of divorce. Withdrawal behaviors were no better (research from Gottman and colleagues).

Here’s the takeaway: marital conflict, or fighting, is not the problem. Bad behavior while fighting is.

The Bottom Line on Fighting

There’s probably nobody alive today who has studied marital conflict more than Dr. John Gottman. He summarizes all his extensive research on successful and unsuccessful marriages in one simple sentence:

”Skills based on gentleness work best to produce happy and lasting relationships”.

Simple enough? In the words of wise King Solomon, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

Whether you take thousands of hours of research or a proverb written over 3,000 years ago you have the same truth. The one key that makes all the difference regardless of how long your fights last, what you fight about or what your fights look like:

Be gentle.

Image courtesy of smile_kerry under the Creative Commons license.

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