Handling conflict

Because conflict, differences and disagreements are inevitable in marriage, and indeed are to be expected; then it is imperative that we learn constructive ways to handle these. Professor Howard Markham has done extensive research on this subject, and this article includes some of the results of this work. He has highlighted four specific patterns of conflictual interactions that often lead to marital problems; and suggested ways to prevent or short-circuit these, once the spouses were aware that they were caught up in them.

1. Escalation.

This occurs when spouses in conflict respond back and forth negatively to one another, continually upping the negativity and verbal abuse. This usually starts with something relatively trivial, and then negative comments spiral into ever increasing anger and frustration. Escalation is so damaging because partners tend to say things to each other that threaten the very lifeblood of their marriages. Once these statements have been made it is very hard to take them back. Although the damage can be undone, it takes a lot of work, and help may be needed. In escalation the partners may say the nastiest things to each other, but it is important to recognise that these usually don’t reflect what they actually feel about each other. It may be believed that partners reveal their “true feelings” in the midst of a fight, but this is not usually the case. Actually, the partners try to hurt their spouse and defend themselves; and in doing this, confidences shared in more intimate moments of dialogue are often used as ammunition to hit below the belt. This obviously causes great pain and seriously damages the relationship, making future sharing of intimacies extremely difficult.

It is imperative to learn to recognise escalation as soon as it starts in order to short-circuit it before real damage occurs. Softening your tone and acknowledging your partner’s point of view are powerful steps to help defuse the tension and thereby end escalation.

2. Invalidation.

This is a pattern in which one spouse, either subtly or caustically, puts down the other. These comments invariably lower the self-esteem, either intentionally or unintentionally, of the one targeted. Invalidation may take many forms. It may be an attack on the character of your spouse, or an attack on their feelings or emotions, or it may be ignoring or criticising your spouse when they have gone out of their way to do something positive in which they might even have expected praise. Invalidation hurts, and leads eventually to covering up who you are and what you think, because to do otherwise becomes too risky.

To prevent invalidation we must acknowledge and show respect for each other’s viewpoint, respect for each other’s character, and an emphasis on validation. With validation, the one raising the concern is respected and heard, even if the other disagrees with the views expressed. This builds intimacy and reduces anger and resentment.

3. Withdrawal and avoidance

These are two different manifestations of a pattern in which one spouse shows an unwillingness to get into or stay with an important discussion that needs to be talked through. Withdrawal can be obvious like getting up and leaving the room, or more subtle like “switching off” or “shutting down” during an argument. The withdrawer may tend to go quiet during an argument or may quickly agree to some suggestion, with no real intention of following through, just to end the conversation. Avoidance reflects the same reluctance to participate in important discussions, but places an emphasis more on preventing the conversation from happening in the first place. A spouse prone to avoidance will endeavour to manufacture situations that will prevent the discussions in the first place, and if it does come up will probably manifest the signs of withdrawal just described. Many couples develop a relationship in which one is the pursuer, that is, brings up the issues for discussion or calls attention to the need to make a decision about something, and the other is the withdrawer who tries to avoid the discussion or pulls away. This pattern is usually a sign of rapid deterioration in a relationship, because as pursuers push more, withdrawers withdraw more, and as withdrawers pull back, pursuers push harder. So withdrawers are basically burying their head in the sand, and the conflict never gets resolved or important issues discussed.

If you recognise this pattern in your marriage, you must first realise that you are not independent of one another. Your actions cause reactions, and vice-versa. So you need to work together to change or prevent this kind of negative pattern. Pursuers must back off and pursue more constructively, and withdrawers must deal more directly with the issues in hand.

4. Negative interpretations

These occur when one spouse consistently believes the motives and opinions of the other are far more negative than is really the case. This tends to create an environment of hopelessness and demoralisation for the other spouse. Negative interpretations are very destructive, because they are difficult to detect and to counteract once they have become cemented into the fabric of the relationship. Research shows, that we have a very strong tendency to look for evidence that confirms what we already think is true about a person. So if a negative situation has occurred in our marriage, we may make assumptions based on this, and thereby see everything negatively as a result. Positive behaviour is even seen negatively, and negative behaviour seen as an extension of character flaws.

It is extremely difficult to overcome this pattern of negative interpretation as only the spouse who has adopted this pattern can control how they interpret their partner’s behaviour. Possible helps might be firstly to examine whether they are over-emphasising the negative interpretations of their partner’s behaviour; secondly, push themselves to look for evidence that is contrary to their interpretation; and thirdly, look honestly at whether there might be personal reasons for maintaining their negative interpretations. This could be seeing himself or herself as a kind of martyr, or perhaps a need to be seen as the one who truly cares for the partnership. However, these honest self-reflections are extremely difficult. Marriage partners must learn to accept each other, and concentrate on seeing each other positively.

Outlined above, are suggested ways of dealing with common conflictual interactions which otherwise might cause serious marital problems. But we can approach conflict and problem solving in more constructive ways by employing tools which enable us to hear each other, and obviate the likelihood of any of the four destructive patterns, mentioned above, occurring. One of these tools that Dr. Howard Markham has developed with Dr. Scott Stanley, as the key component of their PREP program, they call the “Speaker-Listener Technique.”