During my first year of marriage, my wife and I regularly got together with three other newly-married couples to talk about what was going on in our lives, and every time, one of the couples would come in with weak smiles and expressionless eyes. Somebody was fighting again.
As we all gradually became more comfortable with each other, it became apparent that, behind closed doors, every couple was intensely struggling with conflict management. We were those couples — the bickering, hypersensitive people we never wanted to be — and we weren’t that good at hiding it. And the more the couples in our group revealed to each other, the more I realized we all had similar ways of slipping into conflict, which included things like:
1. Downward spiraling: This is what happens when one spouse gets legitimately offended, and he or she starts describing the whole marriage in catastrophic terms and letting it all spin out of control in an emotional vortex of exasperation. My friends Laura and Randy Kenna call this “the death spiral,” which usually results in the offended spouse saying things that leave the other spouse feeling defeated and unlovable.
2. Nitpicking: In "The Mystery of Marriage," Mike Mason points out how marriage can give the feeling of being under constant surveillance, like sitting under a bright light that exposes all the flaws we’ve successfully hidden for years. As we examine our spouses under that light, it’s easy to start pointing out all the little splinters in their eyes, and we might even decide to try to yank them out. This is irritating and painful, and it only seems to inspire our spouses to yank the splinters out of our eyes in return.
3. Competing: In Stephen Covey’s bestseller, "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," he talks about the toxic “win-lose” approach, which is rooted in this idea that every conflict has to have a winner and a loser. People with a win-lose approach have a poverty mentality and see life as a winner-take-all competition, which undermines trust and makes negotiations unnecessarily competitive. Marriages that operate this way are full of unnecessary conflict over the dumbest things, and at the heart of all the conflict are two people who are doing everything they can to avoid losing again.
4. Blame: A lot of people try to motivate their spouse with guilt trips and blame. While that actually works some of the time, it undermines trust by communicating something like, I love you, but I will withhold approval unless you do what I want. Basically, it’s an unhealthy dose of emotional manipulation that primes your spouse to stay on the defensive and remain closed off from you.
5. The silent treatment: A recent USA Today article reported the results of a comprehensive study that analyzed the toxic effects of the silent treatment on marriage. Basically, when a spouse uses the silent treatment to shut out his or her partner, it inspires the other person to aggressively try to provoke conversation and engagement. This starts an unhealthy cycle of more withdrawal and more aggression, generating all kinds of mutual dissatisfaction in the relationship.
If you and your spouse find yourselves repeatedly falling into conflicts inspired by these kinds of unhealthy patterns, you’re not alone. And if you’re anything like my wife and me, the first step in getting healthier is to recognize the patterns and stop normalizing them. If you can do that, you’ll be more likely to put the breaks on, engage respectfully, and stop having so many unproductive marital conflicts