Invariably there are challenges in a marriage. Couples fight, it’s a fact of life, and it’s healthy and normal to have differences. Conflict arises for many reasons. A partner’s reactions to perceptions of abandonment, rejection, or neglect can surprise or scare or shame a partner. Differences in goals and values can cause arguments. Misunderstood words, text messages that lack tone, expectations set and not met, and forgetfulness all play a part. So what should a couple do in such case?
Underlying sources of conflict are real needs
An effective way to stop escalating, defending, reacting, and criticizing is to pause and consider “what is it that I really want here?” Maybe simply “to be heard.” Maybe to have some task performed or some chore shared. Maybe to modify some spoken or unspoken agreement that no longer works. A reflective moment pauses escalation. Going further, demonstrating knowledge of the other’s needs wants, and preferences increase secure feelings and make conflicts less threatening.
Of course, on-going, drummed up conflict where boundaries are repeatedly crossed could be a sign of borderline, narcissistic, or antisocial personality where negotiations and mutuality are ineffective and prolong abuse. In that case, a partner may have to cut their losses and no longer have contact or expectations of safety, let alone fulfillment.
4 horsemen of the apocalypse of a relationship
Less drastic, but still requiring agreement to cease, are the “four horsemen of the apocalypse relationship,” described by the Gottmans. Contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness are behaviors that are known to corrode security in a relationship and predict future separation. Couples benefit when they are aware of these tactics so that they can interrupt them for themselves and for the other. It is helpful if both can agree to tolerate being called out by their partner if they slip into these habits of speech.
Contact during arguments
A third possibility is that couples feel contact in arguments. Couples that work separately, running out of the house in the morning, returning late and tired in the evening, with little contact during the day, may satisfy the real need for connection through fighting. People, like most primates, prefer contact over isolation, and will prefer negative contact if that’s all that’s available. Couples can increase their contact throughout the day, providing a tether to each other, as Dr. Tatkin suggests, through messaging and phone calls, to reduce this pressure to connect.
Even with mutual respect and boundaries around harmful speech, people get upset by their partner’s behavior. Couples can feel safer with each other than in general, which ironically allows for worse behavior than would happen outside the relationship.
Mindfulness, which can be practiced by short sessions of simply paying attention to the breath, is necessary for catching escalation before it’s too late. A commitment to mutuality in relationships supports phrasing like “I have a need for ___, what can I do for you,” or “I need ___, what do you need?”
So make requests. Be bold and courageous, and be prepared to hear “no” and negotiate. “I would really like it if you’d mow the lawn before people come over,” may feel risky to say. Do it anyway.