Conflict is a normal part of any marital relationship. In fact, a lack of conflict is not necessarily a good sign. It could mean that there is no life, no energy, no passion left in the relationship. The partners may have become so indifferent to each other or of so little consequence to each other that they don't attempt to interact meaningfully.
It is only when partners care, share and engage each other at a significant level that differences are discovered and conflicts can occur. So long as two parties are different from each other, conflicts can and do arise.
However a relationship that is constantly plagued by conflict can be a very unhappy relationship. No one enjoys fighting all the time. People get married to give and experience love and when there is constant fighting, both partners become disillusioned and feel cheated at not getting what they had initially hoped for.
The solution for some people is to change partners in the hope that the conflict will stop. After doing this several times and after several partners come and go, most will realise that as long as there are differences, conflict is inescapable. All of us are made different and unique. No two people are ever completely alike.
Researchers who study marital relationships have come to the conclusion that it is not the absence of conflict that predicts the success of a relationship but the avoidance of conflict. In a healthy marital relationship, conflict is addressed when both partners work together to resolve and manage the issue as partners and not as adversaries.
In other words they focus on resolving their differences and not on attacking one another, so that the partnership is preserved and strengthened. Learning and practising good conflict management skills is an important part of a loving marriage.
Question 1: You have said that every healthy married couple should learn how to fight. What do you mean by that?
What I have said is that people need to learn how to fight fair, because there is a big difference between healthy and unhealthy combat in marriage. In an unstable marriage, hostility is aimed at the partner's soft underbelly with comments like "You never do anything right!" and "Why did I marry you in the first place?" and "You're getting to be more like your mother every day!" These offensive remarks strike at the very heart of the mate's self-worth.
Healthy conflict, by contrast, is focused on the issues that cause disagreement. For example: "It upsets me when you don't tell me you're going to be late for dinner." Or: "I was embarrassed when you made me look foolish at the party last night."
Can you hear the difference in these two approaches? The first assaults the dignity of the partner while the second is addressed to the source of conflict. When couples learn this important distinction, they can work through their disagreements without wounding and insulting each other.
Question 2: My wife and I sometimes get into fights when neither of us really wants to argue. I'm not even sure how it happens. We just find ourselves locking horns and then feeling bad about it later. Why can't we get along even when we want to?
To answer the question, I would need to know more about the circumstances that set off the two of you. The best I can do is describe one of the most common sources of conflict between people who are committed to each other. I call it experiencing "differing assumptions." Let me explain.
When husbands and wives engage one another in angry combat they often feel hurt, rejected, and assaulted by the other person. But when these battles are analysed objectively, we often see that neither side really meant to wound the other. The pain resulted not from intentional insults but from the natural consequences of seeing things from different angles.
For example, a man might assume that Saturday is his day to play golf or watch a game on television because he worked hard all week and deserves a day off. Who could blame him? But his wife might justifiably assume that he should take the kids off her hands for a few hours because she's been wiping runny noses and changing diapers all week long.
She deserved a break today and expected him to give it to her. Again, it's a pretty reasonable assumption. When these unique perspectives collide, about eight o'clock on Saturday morning, the sparks start to fly.
How can you avoid the stresses of differing assumptions at home? By making sure that you and your wife get no surprises. Most of us can cope with anything if we see it coming in time.
Question 3: Since almost every couple fights from time to time, what distinguishes a healthy marriage from one that is in serious trouble? How can a husband and wife know when their conflicts are within normal limits and when they are symptoms of more serious problem?
It is true that conflict occurs in virtually all marriages. That is how resentment and frustration are ventilated. The difference between stable families and those in serious trouble is evidenced by what happens after a fight. In healthy relationships, a period of confrontation ends in forgiveness -- in drawing together -- in deeper respect and understanding -- and sometimes in sexual satisfaction.
But in unstable marriages, a period of conflict produces greater pain and anger that persists until the next fight. When that occurs, one unresolved issue is compounded by another and another. That accumulation of resentment is an ominous circumstance in any marriage. Let us remember not to let the sun go down on our anger.
This article was written by Focus on the Family Malaysia and the Questions and Answers are extracted from "Complete Family and Marriage Home Reference Guide" by Dr. James Dobson with permission.
Focus on the Family 90-second commentaries is aired over TRAXX FM at 6.30 a.m. Monday to Friday