Can Good Marriages Have Unresolved Conflicts?

Simply put, it is not the presence of conflict that stresses the relationship; it is the manner in which the couple responds. Positive, respectful communication about differences helps keep a marriage thriving.
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40's Couple In Apartment
40's Couple In Apartment

Many people think that if a marriage is basically healthy all issues get resolved. Yet according to psychologist and author John Gottman's groundbreaking research, a whopping 69 percent of problems in marriage do not get solved.[1] His good news, though, is that many problems can be managed. Gottman states that couples can live with unresolvable conflicts about perpetual issues in their relationship if the issues are not deal breakers.

Simply put, it is not the presence of conflict that stresses the relationship; it is the manner in which the couple responds. Positive, respectful communication about differences helps keep a marriage thriving.

Weekly marriage meetings, conducted as explained in my book, Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love, foster a spirit of goodwill and acceptance, a live-and-let-live, respectful attitude that allows partners to be themselves. The process results in the ability to minimize or manage conflicts that may not be resolvable.

Unresolvable Conflicts Do Not Have to Be Deal Breakers

Here are a few examples of unresolvable conflicts that you can probably learn to live with, assuming you get along well most of the time:

•You think your spouse is too strict (or too lenient) with the children.

•You are irritated by your partner's habitual lateness.

•Your partner has an okay job, but you wish he or she were more ambitious.

•Your spouse leaves crumbs on the counter even though you've said you don't like that.

•Your spouse is forgetful.

How can you accept quirks and habits of your partner that have been bothering you for some time despite your efforts to change them? Look at the big picture. All in all, are you glad to be married to this person? If yes, do you want to keep carping and become a source of irritation to your spouse, or do you want a happy marriage?

Ask yourself, "Am I so perfect?" In healthy relationships partners accept their mates' foibles as part of a package that is precious.

Certainly, you may address some of these concerns during marriage meetings. Even if neither partner is likely to change much of what irks the other, both of you will get to express yourselves constructively. You can expect to feel heard and understood. You may gain small improvements.

For example, Lew is bothered by the casual approach of his wife Ellie to dressing for social and business occasions. During the Problems and Challenges part of their marriage meeting he tells her, "I want us both to look great at the dinner party my boss invited us to. I know you like to dress comfortably, but please wear something especially nice Saturday night. I like how classy you look when you wear earrings and maybe other jewelry too." He adds for emphasis: "This is really important to me, and for us, because I want that promotion." Of course, after Ellie complies, he will generously express his appreciation.

How to Manage Conflicts That Are Not Deal Breakers

Suppose a situation is coming up soon in which you want your partner to behave in a certain way. During a marriage meeting, after you've already expressed appreciation for what you like about each other, you can later ask your spouse for what you would like him or her to do. Focus on something fairly easy to change, especially during your first four to six marriage meetings, so you'll get comfortable with the format.

Character traits and long established habits are not likely to change, at least not without great effort. Lew did not ask Ellie to start dressing better all the time. That would have been unrealistic. Her careless approach to what she wears is an entrenched habit. He is learning to live with that because he loves Ellie regardless and appreciates her many fine qualities.

Lew realizes he's not perfect either. He appreciates Ellie for putting up with his forgetfulness and for finding ways to work around it. Lew is minimizing their conflict by managing it. He is encouraging his wife to dress better when it really matters to him. He does this when he has her full attention during their marriage meetings.

Keeping Your Expectations Realistic

Maybe your partner will agree to change. If so, wonderful! Just understand that our basic nature and character traits are likely to remain the same. So don't expect an introvert to become the life of the party, a frugal person to become a big spender, or a sensitive person to become thick skinned.

However, behaviors that have not become habits can be fairly easy to change -- if the person wants to. The key word is want. Your partner may or may not want to change. You may have heard this joke: "How many psychotherapists does it take to change a light bulb? Just one -- but the light bulb has to want to change."

If your spouse agrees to change a habit, be patient. When your partner makes an effort, let the compliments flow anytime and especially during the Appreciation part of your marriage meeting. If you see no progress, and you think your partner will accept a gentle reminder, offer it during Problems and Challenges.

What if the change still does not happen? If your partner's fault is not a deal breaker, strive to accept what you cannot change. As Rabbi Joseph Richards said, "People are annoying. So find the person who annoys you least and marry that one!" The lesson is to keep irritations in perspective. Look at the big picture.

Some Conflicts May Be Deal Breakers

Although some conflicts can end up being deal breakers, you may still want to save your marriage. The more difficult challenges are likely benefit from individual or couple therapy to help you communicate more constructively or to set realistic goals and work toward achieving them.

It's Fine to Agree to Disagree

If you and your partner get along well, all in all, when you experience lingering conflicts, know that you are in good company. Even the best marriages learn to agree to disagree about their unresolvable differences.

(1) Gottman, J. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Three Rivers Press.

This article is adapted from part of the chapter, "Debunking Marriage Myths," in the book, Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love; 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You've Always Wanted (New World Library).

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