By Donna Goss, MA, LPC
It is no secret every couple has some sort of relationship conflict. It is very normal, but sometimes that conflict can grow to become too big for a couple to overcome.
There are different types of conflict we should establish. A difference of opinion on what to do for date night is not the same as an argument over one party’s spending habits that have caused debt. According to John Gottman of the Gottman Institute, there are three types of conflict: solvable, perpetual and gridlocked perpetual.
- Solvable conflict is a difference in opinion, but with a conversation at the end resulting in a resolution. These conflicts are situational and are usually resolved quickly because there are no underlying problems. These are surface issues.
- Perpetual conflict centers on fundamental beliefs that are harder to change. Personality differences and lifestyle needs are different between each individual in the relationship. These fundamental differences might result in conflict over and over again for years.
- Gridlocked perpetual conflict comes from solvable or perpetual conflicts that were not handled correctly. The conflicts are now uncomfortable sore spots in the relationship. There may never be a resolution to these conflicts. They have many underlying issues consolidating into one argument, making it feel as though any conversation trying to resolve the issue gets nowhere. Neither side is willing to budge.
What Are Some Common Couple Problems?
In my experience, here are the top seven most common relationship complaints from couples:
- Lack of Communication: “They doesn’t listen to me.” I hear this frequently when working with couples. One or both are typically good at “talking at” the other person and defending their position. But, they are not so great with using “active” listening skills.
- Lack of Emotional Support: “I don’t feel close to my spouse anymore” or “We are more like roommates than a married couple.” When a couple’s trust level begins to crumble, they avoid conflict. More often than not, this leads to emotional disengagement.
- Lack of Intimacy: “We don’t have sex very often, if at all, anymore.” Time, energy, the natural aging process and stress can be major barriers to having a healthy intimate sex life. This can often cause one or both partners to view pornography which might lead to more problems in the relationship.
- Lack of Mutual Interests: “I don’t feel like I am a part of their life” or “We don’t do anything together anymore.” Couples who have many common interests will find after a few years of marriage, they tend to drift apart in doing things together. This is because of schedules, emotionally withdrawing, enjoying time with friends or intentionally not spending some time together.
- Lack of Forgiveness: “I can’t forgive them for what they did to me.” Couples struggle with letting go of past hurts in relationships. Therapy can address different types and definitions of forgiveness.
- Lack of Trust: “I can’t trust them after what happened.” Building trust takes time. The hurt person needs to see evidence that the changes the other person says they will make are truly taking place.
- Jealousy: “I don’t believe they will follow through on their promise.” Jealousy can have a poisonous effect on a relationship. The receiving partner is likely to resent having so little trust put in them and may begin to feel suffocated or controlled. The lack of trust they are feeling toward their partner is likely to make them feel insecure and isolated. This can lead to lying and/or half-truths. A continued negative pattern of behavior will result in guilt and shame.
How Often Do Healthy Couples Fight?
A couple’s conflict frequency depends on each person’s previous personal experiences and the perspective they have built upon those experiences. People exposed to frequent conflict early on are more likely to exhibit the same frequency in their own relationship. Experiencing frequent conflict makes arguing and fighting the “norm” which enables them to install a more aggressive and confrontational style of communication with their partner.
On the other end of the spectrum, individuals not exposed to frequent arguing their entire life find they avoid conflict. In their experience, one fight could mean the end to a relationship. Oftentimes, the individuals who have little to no exposure to conflict also have not developed conflict resolution skills. Here, a singular argument causing a relationship to end.
Both of these are the extreme ends of the spectrum. One couple fights every day and exposes their relationship to constant tension because that is all they know. This can also be an attention seeking behavior. The other couple bottles up emotions. Their needs are not met to avoid conflict which can lead to an eruption the couple is then unable to recover from.
It is ideal to find yourself somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Picking your battles and allowing open communication between you and your partner is best to avoid issues. When conflict arises, conflict resolution techniques can help you see a quick resolve that leaves both parties happy.
Despite differences, couples learn how to approach these unsolvable problems by managing the conflict and in-the-moment emotions.
Some basic conflict resolution skills include:
- Use “I” statements: (“I feel”, “I need” or “I want…”).
- Avoid blaming with “you” statements (“you always”, “you never…”).
- Speak to your partner in soft tones; no raising voices.
- Try not to address the problem immediately. Instead, allow emotions to cool so a level-headed conversation can occur.
A great thing to say your partner in a fight could be: “Let’s take the time to process our thoughts and let our emotions settle, so that we can speak to each other fairly and calmly in a few minutes.”
It is okay to express your feelings in a healthy way. Learning how to manage your emotions and thoughts without making your partner defensive or hurt is the challenge.
When Is Marriage Counseling Needed?
In my experience, couples typically wait too long to seek professional help. The emotional walls, hurt and pain are then too much for the relationship to fully recover. John Gottman found 40% of the time couples divorce due to conflict they were unable to overcome. More often, it is because individuals distance themselves emotionally, mentally and physically. The connection/friendship is soon lost from the relationship.
I recommend couples seek professional help when they first begin to notice changes to the way they interact and respond with each other.
I work with couples on developing their individual communication styles and identifying and changing negative behavior patterns. I use a variety of techniques and styles to achieve the couples’ therapeutic goals. “The 5 Love Languages” by Gary Chapman and John Gottman’s “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” are often used in conjunction with the therapy sessions.
In my experience, I see the most success when both partners are “all in” and agree to work on their relationship together. Couples who identify their own negative behaviors and thinking patterns, and are willing to change, have the best chance for improving their relationship.