It is not uncommon for couples to come to counseling to deal with conflicts from a decade ago that are still unresolved. Typically, one or both people in a relationship are conflict avoidant, so they do their best to avoid conflict. Maybe they think conflict is bad, or perhaps they are afraid their relationship will not survive a disagreement. Unfortunately, the longer you wait to resolve conflicts, the bigger and more destructive they become.
An unresolved conflict is like a ball of yarn. When it’s new, you can unravel it pretty easily. However, over time the ball of yarn starts to get unraveled from use, and then it gets knotted and tangled with other colors. Likewise, in relationships where conflict isn’t properly addressed, one conflict bleeds over into another, creating a snowball effect where a minor conflict can become a nuclear bomb in a marriage over time.
Couples in healthy, long-term relationships do have conflict. Conflict alone is not the problem in marriages. The absence of conflict does not define a happy relationship. The problem, rather, is unaddressed or mishandled conflict.
Right now, think about issues of tension in your relationship. Some of the topics that come to mind are likely things you can solve, but most of them are probably more chronic, complicated issues. Now, consider whether you have discussed these issues together. Does he or she know that you are concerned about these matters? Maybe you have given up trying to work out your concerns, but if you are honest, it still bothers you. If you can relate, it is time to have a conversation.
If the idea of talking about these areas scares you, here are some guidelines to help, based on the marriage research of John Gottman, PhD:
- Start gently. Find a good time to talk, when the kids are in bed and when neither one of you is tired or stressed. Take care to be kind in your tone and choose your words carefully.
- Complain, don’t criticize. The nature of conflict is that you are dissatisfied with a situation but your partner sees it differently. It is inevitable that two people will disagree on some things, as you both have different backgrounds and views of the world. To bring up your complaint, talk about the problem and make that the subject of your communication. A great way to do this is to use “I” statements, such as, “I felt disappointed when you forgot to take out the trash.” Not, “You are a loser because you always forget to take out the trash,” which is a character attack.
- Deal with one problem at a time. It is very common that a couple sits down to resolve one problem, and finds themselves rehashing three other issues but fixing none of them. For example, a husband and wife may decide to discuss a parenting problem and end up talking about how the wife felt eight years ago at their wedding. If this sounds familiar, it is a sign that unresolved issues are bleeding over into other problem areas and starting to snowball. Decide beforehand that you are going to focus on one issue at a time before moving on to the next issue.
- Take breaks as needed. It is common for men, and sometimes women, to be physically affected by conflict. If you notice your heart beating fast, your hands getting sweaty, or your words not coming easily because you feel overwhelmed, you need a break from the conflict. Another way to tell you need a break is if your heart rate is elevated over your normal, resting rate, which is over 100 beats per minute for most people. Tell you spouse if you need a break and when you will be back to talk about the problem more. Then, give yourself at least twenty minutes to do something calming to help your body return to a productive state for conflict resolution.
- Get help if you get stuck. If you are trying to resolve conflict using these principles but aren’t making progress, then it is definitely time to ask for help. Meet with someone you respect to help navigate the problem or call a couples counselor. We help couples untangle conflicts regularly and learn how to better manage problems in the future. The result can be a relationship with more room for joy and support, the reasons you probably got together in the first place.