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Managing conflict in relationships

We cannot avoid conflict in relationships. Psychologists Howard Markman and Scott Stanley state in their book Fighting for Your Marriage, “Contrary to popular belief, it’s not how much you love each other that can best predict the future of your relationship, but how conflicts and disagreements are handled. Unfortunately, conflict is inevitable – it can’t be avoided. So, if you want to have a good marriage, you better learn to fight right.”

Many years ago, David Olson of the University of Minnesota, who has studied over 15,000 married couples, said that 50 percent of married people will never be happy, unless they get unusually good therapy. Other researchers agree that about 30 percent of marriages are “empty shells” – little love, little talk, little joy. Only about 25 percent of couples have “really good marriages”. The remaining 25 percent could achieve a good marriage if they got therapy and/or really worked on obtaining the necessary skills via training or marriage enrichment (or, you can add, self-help).

Olson believes the needed skills and characteristics are: communication skills, conflict resolution skills, compatible personality, agreement on values, and good sex.

Note, carefully, that happiness is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it. Here are some situations that can, in themselves, cause conflict and perhaps could have been avoided if the right choice was made:

• If you felt pressured to get married.

• If you married someone not of your faith.

• If you got married because you were lonely or frustrated.

• If you married someone with a totally different view about life.

• If you only got married to fulfill your sexual hunger.

• If you got married for someone to fill your emotional or spiritual emptiness.

• If you got married to someone who is sexually experienced.

• If you got married so you can be a happy person.

• If you married someone with children from another relationship.

• If you married someone who is not as intelligent as you are.

Here are a few more points to consider. Psychologist Dr. David Olsen, shows through his research with millions of couples, that 84 percent of married couples say, “Having children reduces our marital satisfaction”. This may be due to the fact of unrealistic expectations about parenting children and the lack of preparation to be a parent. We also know that financial management or lack thereof is a problem. It leads to serious conflicts that cripples many marriages.

It is important to note that arguing or conflict affects women differently than men. Ohio State University’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research states: “Even after husbands and wives have stopped arguing, the battle may still be raging within the woman’s body. It can do so for hours, altering her hormone levels and weakening her immune system to the point where illness could gain a foothold.”

This discovery, based on a long-running study of newlywed couples, is forcing researchers to rethink their understanding of marital conflicts. It could also have important implications for the physical, as well as emotional, health of married couples.

Earlier research suggested that men, generally, seek to “tune out” their wives during an argument, seeking to escape or withdraw from the conflict. Wives, on the other hand, are seen as being more likely to complain, criticize or demand change in a relationship. The husband’s withdrawal is acutely frustrating to these women.

Blood analysis showed that among women who reacted negatively to their husband’s withdrawal during the arguments, the average levels of epinephrine, norepinephrine, cortisol and prolactin all rose. The more negative the wife’s response and her husband’s withdrawal, the greater the hormone level rise.

“If those hormone levels stay up long enough, it can have immune consequences,” explained Ronald Glaser, professor of medical microbiology and immunology. Earlier work by institute researchers has shown that psychological stress can cause weakened immune responses and a slowing of wound healing. We’re not saying that conflicts in marriage are bad necessarily. They’re completely normal. It’s the way the couples disagreed that was later related to a rise in hormone levels and a drop in immune function.”

Here’s what’s true: “The way we handle the problems, more than the problems themselves, often can be the problem.”

Here are four types of specific patterns of conflictual interaction that often lead to marital problems taken from the book Fighting for your Marriage.

Escalation: Escalation occurs when partners negatively respond back and forth to each other, continually upping the ante so that conditions get worse and worse.

Invalidation: Invalidation is a pattern in which one partner subtly or directly puts down the thoughts, feelings, or character of the other. Sometimes, such as comments, intentionally or unintentionally, lower the self-esteem of the targeted person.

Withdrawal and avoidance.

Negative interpretations: When one partner consistently believes that the motives of the other are more negative than is really the case.

• Barrington Brennen is a counseling psychologist and marriage and family therapist. Send your questions to question@soencouragement.org or call 242-327-1980 or visit www.soencouragement.org.

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