Understanding marital conflicts


Constructively managing conflicts with your intimate partner can be the greatest challenge of a relationship. They can often shake the very foundation on which the relationship is built: trust. Getting it right is a strong indicator of a satisfying relationship. To get it wrong will mean that issues are not resolved and there is a growing sense of frustration, defeat and resentment. It will have enormous impact on your well-being. Research has also found that marital conflicts can affect mental and physical health, as well as functioning in areas like parenting and your career.

Why is it so challenging?

The attachment perspective

Unlike other relationships in our life, with an intimate partner our vulnerability is exposed. This is because an intimate relationship activates the same brain mechanisms that were operated in the first 3 years of our life, when we were required to trust another person in order to survive. Our partner will unintentionally provoke the same issues of security, belonging and sense of self worth as when we were young and dependent on people such as our parents, to provide us with our basic needs. Back then, when we had “conflicts” with the caretaker we lashed out by yelling, raging, or running away. That was our way to protest when our needs were not met. In typical cases, our parents stayed engaged and attempted to manage the situation, they didn’t threaten to leave or put us in foster care. As adults, during conflicts the same emotional primitive spot in our brain is triggered, but we are expected to respond from another brain region. We tend to forget that our partner is not our parent because we emotionally ‘use’ our partner in a similar way to how we ‘used’ our parents – to provide us with that basic need for security and sense of belonging. The intensity of fear and powerlessness we will experience during conflict and the ways we cope with them may reflect the brain habits that were formed during our early experiences. Although we may never consciously remember them, our body does.

When the older systems in the brain interact with each other partners become stuck in continuous conflicts. They can’t seem to get out of the negative cycle of reactivity because they are locked in to using their old brain circuits. It will take a moment of awareness from one partner to break this gridlock and liberate both of them from this detrimental sequence of reactivity.  Interestingly, it has been found that couples who cope better with conflicts tend to be more random and unpredictable in their responses. Thus avoiding this sense of a ‘gridlock’.
To make use of this perspective you need to better understand your reactions. Ask yourself what happens to you when you don’t get what you want. What does it means to you and what “gremlins” operate in the background? “I am not worthy of love”?! “I am powerless”?! “I am inadequate”?! “I am not cared for”?! “I am going to lose my partner”?!.  

The gender role perspective

Male and female brains operate differently in some crucial areas, with one of them being their approach to conflict. Yet, the old patterns are no longer relevant to modern life. Biology is lagging behind culture. Women’s equal rights have changed the rules of the game and gender roles have been revolutionised. In the last two generations we have seen a dramatic change in the content (what) and process (how) of couples conflicts. In terms of socio-biological evolution the change is like a peanut on a mountain. We are only making the baby steps in adapting to this change. Men have traditionally resolved conflicts with a kind of win-lose solution. The process of negotiating one’s power is an unfamiliar territory for the male brain. Work environments, where roles and power are clearly defined, are much easier for them. In negotiating power with their partner men tend to go to the extreme: they either try to force their way with various methods of control, or they resign, avoid and as a result feel powerless. Women on the other hand tend to verbally negotiate their way to a solution. To argue, for them, will often mean a form of connection.
The need to apply a democratic style of negotiating conflicts, gives some advantage to women. Men tend to feel more powerless and frustrated when issues are not resolved in the same simplicity as in the workplace. Their coping style of moving away or taking time out to process emotions, is often perceived by the woman as disconnection, which can then escalate the tension.

To make use of this perspective you need to understand that some gender differences are natural and unavoidable. They are so ingrained in our brain that accepting them and learning to work with them is the gateway to more compassion and peace in your relationship.

The narrative perspective

We constantly give meaning to life events, and it is this meaning that will shape how we feel and react to a situation. In the case of conflict, our mind is so loaded with meaning , which for the most part wewe aren’t even aware of it. When I ask clients to share their thoughts and feelings on conflict, their responses typically revolve around awfully negative connotations that they have formed. It is perceived as a threatening experience where one can only lose or win. The bottom line is: conflict is bad and scary.
Yet, conflict can also be seen in a totally different view. When partners are able to fully express what is important to them it is a sign of freedom and authenticity. However, if only one partner is able to express oneself whilst the other is highly suppressed, there may be less conflict but life satisfaction will be in question. Conflict is also a sign that we are alive and constantly growing. This is when and where you process a change. In Freud’s words: “conflict is the father of development” it is like the crossroads before you take the next turn: you experience a heavier traffic. Conflicts are your laboratory for learning essential life skills of communication, negotiation and problem solving. The greatest learning curve in your marriage will be in this area. You will learn to listen and understand, to clarify what you want, to negotiate, to compromise and more. If you dislike problem solving and you just wish to live in the “no worries” zone, marriage might be a very confronting experience for you.
To make use of this perspective you need to regard conflict as a sign of ongoing adjustment to the inevitable changes and developments in life. This is your opportunity to learn and grow.

The content perspective

Sometime we wish we could get along with our partner as we get along with our friends. Yet, we forget the kinds of issues we are required to make decisions on together: the future and health of our children, the place we live, our careers, financial security and more. These issues, most commonly children and money, will touch on our core values and deepest needs, fears and hopes. Arguing passionately about them shows that partners are free and alive. The renowned relationship researcher, John Gottman, says that 69% of the conflicts are perpetuate! Partners may argue for years on the same issues because the differences in personalities, perceptions and beliefs are too difficult to settle.
To make use of this perspective just remind yourself that sharing the power when deciding upon matters of such great personal importance, is extremely challenging to all of us. It requires a great deal of trust, acceptance, flexibility and humility.

In the next article on this topic I will share with you strategies to better prevent, handle and repair conflicts.

About the author:

Guy (Hagai) Avisar is a psychologist with more than 30 years of experience helping people with relationship issues