Originally posted October 24, 2009. Updated January 27, 2020.

conflict is every relationship's bedfellow

Conflict is every relationship’s bedfellow. Most of us expect that and we also expect that we’ll iron out conflict and move on.

Unfortunately, sometimes we can’t resolve conflict. We get stuck in conflict so intense that we might eventually retreat behind walls of silence and isolation in the hope that this will resolve the conflict. It won’t.

Perpetual problems

Relationship researcher John Gottman says that marriages endure two kinds of conflict: solvable problems and perpetual problems. Gottman did four-year follow up interviews with his research subjects, and found that whether or not the marriage is healthy, about 70% of marital conflicts are perpetual. At first, this finding surprises. But take a moment to reflect. I know this is true for my husband and me. We still argue about the same issues we did when we first married. For example, I think he needs reminding; he thinks I should stop nagging.

Gottman notes that perpetual conflicts are rooted in idealism—in the different values we have. I didn’t think of my self as an idealist. Yet when I ask, “What is the story or the dream behind my need to micro-manage my husband’s life?” I remember the unpredictability I grew up with as a child. As a result, I now value predictability so much that I tend to micromanage my life and the lives of those I care about. In the process I have always annoyed my husband. Since we also work hard at the foundation of our relationship he understands my vulnerability. Positive sentiment override absorbs at least some of the heat of our conflict.

Conflict: idealism underneath

Minor issues intensify quickly when we’re unaware of how underlying ideals motivate surface concerns. So, when we feel ignored or trivialized, we attack. Complaints about a spouse’s disregard turn into character criticism. When criticism doesn’t change the spouse, we escalate. Criticism turns into contempt. The partner goes on the defensive and counter attacks. Sometimes, in an effort to manage the hostility, one or both partners quits responding and withdraws.

Much of the conflict present among the couples is rooted in thwarted idealism. The ideal of equality in our relationships, for example, shapes our expectations about relationship roles. When one spouse gives up career to take a paternity leave, his or her ideal or dream of what it means to be a partner is thrown into disarray. The at-home spouse finds that he or she is still too busy despite not having to manage a career. The working spouse arriving home, tired from a long day can’t understand why the at-home partner is irritable and frazzled; after-all the at-home partner hasn’t had to “work” all day. Couples find themselves gridlocked in conflict.

I worked with a cross-cultural couple some years ago. One partner had left his home country in the developing world to pursue his dream for a better life in the West. He shoved aside his language and values and worked hard to accommodate himself to his new culture. He remembered the hardship of poverty in particular and strove for financial success in his new country, believing his marital relationship would then be far more secure than his parents’. His wife, an American, had very different ideas about money than he did. She understood her partner’s desire to work hard and supported that, until, without consulting his partner, he acquiesced to his employer’s request that he forgo his annual vacation for a very important work project. The ensuing conflict for this couple lasted many months until they did finally retreat into silence and distance. With the silence came feelings of isolation for them both.

Not until both of them were able to talk, and listen deeply to each other about their underlying ideals about financial security were they able to make compromises about how they managed their money.

Curiosity dampens conflict

Take stock of your marriage’s foundation. Do you know each other well? Do you regularly update your knowledge of each other? Are there many turning-toward behaviours in your marriage? A strong foundation provides the safety necessary to expose our deepest ideals, even when those ideals are rooted in ancient disappointments and challenges.

Cultivate an attitude of respectful curiosity towards your perpetual conflicts. Instead of trying to resolve each conflict, focus instead on the underlying dreams and values that motivate your conflicts. Make those ideals the subject of understanding. The payoff will be more intimacy and a stronger relationship bond.