Conflict is every marriage’s bedfellow. Unfortunately, conflict can become so intense that some couples eventually retreat behind walls of silence and isolation in the hope that this will resolve the conflict. It won’t.
Marriage researcher John Gottman says that marriages endure two kinds of confict: 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 surprised me. But upon reflection, I know it 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.
Conflict arises from idealism
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.
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.
Ex-pat couples and idealism
Much of the conflict present among the ex-pat couples I see is rooted in thwarted idealism. The ideal of equality in our relationships, for example, shapes our expectations about marital roles. When one spouse gives up financial independence and career to move abroad, his or her ideal or dream of what it means to be a marriage partner is thrown into disarray. The trailing spouse finds that he or she is desperately unhappy and bored in spite of an increase in income, house help and the opportunity to travel. The busy and over-extended working spouse can’t understand why the trailing spouse isn’t happy living the new “fairy-tale” life. Without a strong foundation of cognitive room and a plethora of turning towards behaviours these couples soon find themselves gridlocked.
I worked with a cross-cultural couple some years ago. One partner 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. 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.
Sometimes couples move abroad because they hope a dramatic change will breathe new life into an ailing marriage. Unfortunately, this won’t work. My clinical experience has taught me that a move abroad heightens conflict. The stress related to a move abroad challenges ideals.
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 behaviors 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.