Every couple has times of disagreement. This is natural and to be expected. Every couple has areas of sensitivity, perhaps unresolved problems they are working on. How they handle these difficulties, however, is what separates healthy styles of communication from unhealthy ones.
One of the most powerful and important lessons every couple needs to learn is how to contain their conflict. Just as one bad apple spoils the whole bunch, an unresolved issue in a marriage can contaminate an entire relationship. A problem allowed to fester and bleed into the whole of the relationship will reduce the positive feelings one mate has for the other.
Consider this email from an angry husband.
Dear Dr. David. I feel stuck in being angry with my wife. I have to admit that I now resent her much of the time. When I think about how my wife and I communicate, it seems like we’re always trying to win over the other. I sometimes can see that when I’m angry, all I want to do is scream at her—sometimes I do, but thankfully many times I control myself. I get so angry because she pushes me and pushes me, even though I ask her to be quiet or to back off. She won’t do it. She has to get the last word in and I hate it.
My wife and I don’t have many good times together any more, and both of us think about calling it quits. We can’t have a civil conversation without it leading to an argument. One of us says something that sets off the other, and before you know it, we’re fighting.
Do you have any suggestions for managing our fighting? If we don’t find a solution soon, we’re going to be divorced. -- Angry Husband
Resentment is the result of allowing anger to fester and contaminate your feelings for your mate. Resentment is a serious warning sign that your relationship is suffering from too much anger and bitterness, often the result of failing to contain negative emotions.
Your note also indicates a pattern of relating that is very concerning—trying to win over the other. Of course, any time one partner wins over the other, both parties lose. Power struggles occur where both are pitted against the other, rather than focused on solving a problem. Your argumentative style has now created an unsafe atmosphere and is eroding positive feelings you once had for each other. Consider the following actions:
First, agree to contain conflict. Agree you will talk about a particular issue for a limited period of time, not allowing the conflict to go on endlessly, without direction, for an indefinite period of time. Understand we have only so much energy to give to a problem before we become exhausted, angry or vindictive.
Some couples agree to set an hour aside every week to talk about the difficult issues in the marriage. Some keep a pen and pencil handy to talk about issues in constructive ways. Healthy couples know when, where, how and why they are having conflict, and agree to keep it contained.
Two, agree to communicate with boundaries. Again, this means you agree on how you will talk about a problem, sharing what you feel, think and want. You must agree on the boundaries you will live by as you discuss sensitive topics—agreeing on the time, place, and length of discussions. You agree to keep the conversation moving in a positive direction.
Three, agree to only attack problems, never each other. A huge part of healthy communication involves never doing or saying anything that might injure the other. No hitting below the belt. Your marriage must be a safe place where you never experience harm. While you won’t always agree, you can always treat one another with respect. This must be a basic premise of every interaction.
Fourth, agree to limit criticism. Keep anything critical to those agreed upon times and places where you can talk about issues in a healthy way. Make sure criticism remains a small aspect of your marriage—never the central part.
Finally, with conflict contained, develop skills that enhance positivity into your marriage. It is not enough to contain conflict; you must also remember how and why you fell in love with your mate. Set aside time to have fun, laugh and experience joy.
Smile, frequently encouraging your mate. These times will help you when you must tackle the tougher issues of marriage.