Six Types of Conflict in MarriageAug 01, 2022
Conflict is not all the same. The rules are different for different kinds of conflict. If one of you comes home late without calling, for example, then confession and an apology are in order. But if you are disagreeing about where to go for dinner, no one should have to grovel as if he has committed a grievous sin!
Nevertheless, we run into couples who do exactly that. They feel that every conflict has a right and a wrong, and instead of trying to resolve the problem, they argue over which one of them is right. It is amazing how creative someone can get in defending the “rightness” of their position when they might be talking about how the couple is going to spend a vacation. In most conflict, there is not a right or wrong. Yet, some spouses can sound like a couple of attorneys in court.
In this article we want to help you distinguish what kind of conflict you are having. Then you may be better equipped to find a solution acceptable to both of you and to the relationship as well. Let’s look at the list of common marital conflicts and then examine each kind.
Sin of One Spouse
Immaturity or Brokenness of One Person
Hurt Feelings That Are No One’s Fault
Desires of One Person Versus the Needs of the Relationship
Known Versus Unknown Problems
Conflict #1 Sin of One Spouse
In this simple scenario, there is a culprit. Someone has done something wrong. One spouse has sinned against the other. There is a true infraction, not an imagined one. And there is no shortage of areas in which we can sin: sexual sin, angry outbursts, loss of self-control, impatience, critical attitudes, judgementalism, out-of-control spending of the family money (thievery), lying or deception, critical attitude, substance abuse, controlling behavior, emotionally injurious behavior (name calling or belittling), misuse of power, pride, selfishness, greed, jealousy, envy, and conceit.
The first thing to consider in facing the conflict that comes from an individual's actions is the attitude of the spouse confronting the sin. The best thing anyone can do in the face of the sin of a spouse is to demonstrate the same attitude that God has toward someone who sins: "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" (Ephesians 4:32).
Do not minimize the sin. This is one of the most difficult things for some people. These people feel that if they are going to be full of grace and humility, they can't be tough on the sin. But a friend of mine once said, "Go soft on the person and hard on the issue." This is what a spouse who can healthily confront this issue will do. Take a stance according to your values, and remember that couples, together, need to take a hard stand against anything that violates the values of their marriage.
Ultimately this will be best for both of you and for the relationship. Go tough on the issue, but remember, go soft on the person.
This process looks like this:
- Look at your own attitude. Rid yourself of judgementalism, condemnation, shame, or pride. Look at the log in your own eye, show mercy, and identify with your spouse as a fellow sinner.
- Speak to the issue directly. Let your spouse know that you know, and tell him that what he is doing is not right. If the sin is against you, let him know how you feel. Talk about the hurt and how it affects you and whoever else is involved. Don't shame him, but be honest. Use "I" statements.
- A boundary-loving spouse will acknowledge the wrong and apologize. Accept it; offer forgiveness. Reaffirm your love and acceptance.
- When emotions are not strong, talk about the problem to see if there is any further help he might need. Even though he might have confessed and repented, underlying issues may need to be addressed, and he might need outside help. Offer your support and help to solve the problem.
- Agree on a follow-up plan. "If I notice something again, how do you want me to help you? What do you want me to do?" This way you become a team member to deal with the problem and not a police officer. You might want to talk to him about bringing other resources to the problem as well, such as friends to hold him accountable. The important issue is that you are together as a team to fight the reoccurrence.
Conflict #2 Immaturity or Brokenness of One Person
I once worked with a couple (Jerry and Genie) who both had busy careers, a family to raise, household responsibilities to maintain, and a variety of recurring obstacles to making everything run smoothly.
Genie perceived that Jerry was not “pulling his weight.” The trash piled up. Kids missed soccer practice, and he was always watching tv when she got home from work.
Genie was frustrated with her husband. Genie nagged Jerry to do more, and he became angry with her, telling her that he was doing all that he could. She couldn’t understand why he couldn’t do more and would tell her, “That’s how life is! You just have to buckle down and do it. I am working hard, too.” He would not feel very helped by her “advice.” He alternated between feeling bad and feeling resentment toward her for pushing him.
Finally, they decided to get some counseling. After I talked with them for a while, it was clear to me that Jerry had some significant problems and that Genie had some significant shortcomings in empathy and understanding.
Jerry was depressed. This was the first reality that they both had to deal with. Just trying harder was not going to fix his depression. Until he dealt with his depression, he would lack energy and concentration. In addition, he did not have the structure in his character to manage their shared responsibilities in the way both of them desired.
Growth was needed on both sides. First, Genie had to “get it.” I had to do several things with her. She had to learn how to accept the reality of who Jerry was, depression and disorganization included. She had to learn that she was married to all of him, his infirmities included.
Second, Genie had to learn not to be judgemental of him, but be supportive and find ways she could work with him. This included giving up some of the things she wanted that he could not do.
And Jerry had to accept himself. He had been fighting the fact that he had a problem. He had not faced the reality of his inability. This realization is an important step in fixing anything.
Once Jerry owned this, change could begin to take place. Once he faced his inability, he could get to work. We developed the following plan.
- Work on the depression. Jerry saw his long-standing depression as a real problem and began treatment for it. He took medication and sought counseling. In a matter of months, he saw real progress. He had much more energy and concentration to face and solve some of his other problems.
- Adjust to reality. Both Gene and Jerry had to reorganize their life. They had to give up some of their ambitious plans for a while until their problems were better. Their original plan had included two fully functioning people, and they did not have that, at least for a while. So they agreed to cut back on what they wanted until they got to a better place.
- Work on the disorganization.
Jerry and Genie did very well. He worked through his depression and began to meet their new, more realistic goals and expectations. And Genie turned into a much more compassionate, helpful person. I was proud of Jerry and Genie.
Their story teaches some valuable lessons for dealing with the conflict that comes from one spouse’s inability. All of us will fall short of the demands of life. This is a difficult concept for some people to understand. Most people get married totally unaware of their spouse’s shortcomings. In fact, part of “falling in love” is idealizing an imperfect person, not even seeing where he or she falls short of that ideal. But in every relation, reality eventually surfaces. When it does, it is very important to face it in the following helpful ways.
Accept reality about yourself and your spouse. Both of you will be unprepared for some of the realities life brings. You will not have the emotional ability to weather some stresses in the way you would like. Or you will not have the skill needed to be a mature adult. When this happens, do not be surprised. Below are some common areas where normal people find they have brokenness from the past or some immaturity where they are not equipped to perform as they or their spouse would like:
- Relational abilities to get close, communicate or sustain intimacy
- Parenting abilities
- Emotional problems from the past or from their family of origin
- Lack of structure, self-discipline, or follow-through
- Financial inabilities to make or manage money
- Sexual difficulties from fear, past trauma, shame, or other emotional factors
- Not having fully completed identity formation
- Not having completely left home and become an adult, ready for marriage
None of these are “sins.” They are areas in which you are immature and need to grow. If one of you makes them out to be sin, or demands that they not be present because you wanted an “ideal” partner, you are prolonging the problem. Accept reality.
Communicate Your Support To Your Spouse
We do not grow when we are judged, nagged, condemned, resented, or subjected to some other lack of grace. We all need to feel that someone is on our side and supporting us. Let your partner know that you are her biggest supporter and reaffirm your absolute unconditional love and acceptance for her just like she is. Let your spouse know that her weakness or inability is something with which you will be supportive and patient.
Face Issues as Real Problems
Although we don’t wish to be nonsupportive or lack grace, we also wish to be honest about problems. It would not have been truly loving for Genie to ignore Jerry’s depression or her disorganized life. Part of love, remember, is honesty and requiring holiness and growth from each other. So, where your spouse is not mature, let her know.
Be direct. Tell her what you see as a problem. Let your spouse know how you feel and how it affects you. But be careful to stay away from shame and condemnation. “I understand your difficulty, Jerry. I really do. But, at the same time, I would like us to be able to do some things together again. I get lonely. I want you to get your depression treated so we can have fun again.” This kind of communication can be motivating, not condemning. But make sure that you are both clear that there is a need for growth.
Own Your Problems
If you are the one confronted with your immaturity, own it. Be a “boundary lover.” Be the kind of wise man or woman who loves to get feedback and heeds it. Don’t be defensive, and try to learn what the person who sees you every day is learning about you. Don’t fight the truth as well as the problem itself.
Get a Plan
Genie and Jerry designed a plan to deal with their immaturity issues. They received help from others. You will have to do that as well, no matter who you are. We need help, mentoring, support, and teaching. No one ever grew up on his own.
Some need therapy. Others need financial counseling. Still others need support groups or recovery groups. Some need accountability systems. But make sure that your immaturity or brokenness does not rule you. Overcome it by being intentional about dealing with it. Devote resources, time, and energy to the problem.
Make it Mutual
Guard against labeling one spouse “the problem person.” This is never true. Just because Jerry had the more noticeable problems did not mean that he was the only one who had some growing up to do. Neither of you is a complete person yet; you are both still growing up. Guard against the one who is the most functional being seen as the okay one.
Usually one of you has to grow more in the relational are such as expressing feelings and confronting problems, and the other in the functional area of life, such as advancing in a career and getting things done. Help each other in your areas of weakness. Remember: you are one now. And if one of you is suffering, so is the other.
There is no “one-upmanship” here. Both of you are loving the other as part of yourself. You are one. You are both in need of growth. Equality and mutuality can solve a lot of problems if you are working as a team. You are no longer individuals in the way singles are. Make the equality mutual, and make the problems mutual so that you can help each other.
Conflict #3: Hurt Feelings That Are No One’s Fault
This common conflict type often results when one or both spouses have expectations that have not been met, either by accident, misunderstanding, or oversight, but without the intention of upsetting the other person.
There is a familiar pattern:
- One of them feels hurt
- The hurt person communicates as if the other has sinned against them
- The accused party gets defensive
- They “go to court” defending their innocence
- They end up alienated
- The problem never gets resolved, and they go on, “forgetting” about it the next day
Sadly, this pattern happens in many relationships. In reality, neither spouse has committed a transgression. But one of you is hurt. This hurt was no one’s fault. If one person arrives home expecting to see their partner, and their partner happens to be out running errands but had not committed to being home to meet them at a certain time, and winds up with their feelings hurt, feeling ignored, no one has done anything wrong. The hurt feelings just happened and it feels unavoidable.
Sometimes one partner will have unhealed childhood wounds that will make them sensitive to feelings of abandonment and to feeling ignored. Their spouse may have done nothing wrong, but they feel hurt just the same.
This is common. Because we all have hurts and things to which we are sensitive, innocent things will set us off. What is important is that we learn how to deal with this kind of hurt where no one is really “wrong.”
Here are some hints:
When You Are Hurt, Acknowledge It to Yourself
Know yourself well enough to know when something is bothering you, and own your feelings. Don’t ignore how you feel. Figure out what is bothering you. If you don’t know what it is, at least acknowledge that it is “something.”
Tell your spouse you are hurt by something they did. Don’t blame your spouse as if they have sinned. Take ownership for the hurt as coming from inside of you. Communicate that you know it is your problem, that you just want your spouse to understand. Use “I” statements and talk about your own feelings, making sure that you don’t sound as if you are blaming your spouse.
If you are on the other end of the hurt, show empathy for your spouse’s feelings. Know that by caring and offering empathy you are not saying that it is your “fault.” If you can identify with your spouse’s feelings, offer that as well: “I know what that feels like. I can understand why you felt so sad. I don’t like feeling alone either.”
Be a healing agent for the hurt of the past. When you offer understanding instead of devaluing your spouse’s feelings, you are doing the opposite of the one who caused the original hurt and are becoming part of the healing instead of part of the problem.
Identify Patterns and Plan
Learn what hurts you. Then you can anticipate things that might hurt you in the future. And when it happens, you can take precautions to respond helpfully or, better yet, avoid the hurt altogether. If you see situations coming up, you can plan for them so that hurt does not happen.
Be in a Healing Mode
We are all responsible for the hurts we carry around inside. If you have become aware of a repetitive theme of hurt, call it a problem and obtain some help. Do something to pursue healing in that area so that it stops interfering in your life. That is part of becoming a complete, healed person.
Guard Against Going to Court
Often couples try to find out who was “wrong.” Of course, they never could, because no one was. Validate each other’s feelings because what your spouse is feeling is real and true for him or her. Remember, you don’t need to win or to be right. You are not in court, and there is no judge and jury. What is important is that your hearts connect with empathy for whoever is hurting.
Marriage is a place where old hurts get stepped on. This is inevitable. But old hurts can heal as you respond differently to your spouse than they have been responded to in their “past life.”
Conflict #4: Conflicting Desires
Think of the following inevitable conflicts:
- One person likes adventure movies, the other person likes romantic comedies
- One wants to spend money on the house, the other wants to save for the future
- One likes the church that focuses on contemporary worship, the other likes traditional liturgy
- One wants to go out, the other wants to stay home
- One wants more children, the other wants no more
Wherever you have two people, you will have conflicting desires. It is one of the things that makes a relationship what it is. Two different people bring differences to the table. In fact, your differences are part of what brought you together. You can complement each other.
Normally, two people develop a pattern of give and take, and differences get negotiated. But sometimes they hit a stalemate. A few principles can help:
Avoid Moralizing Your Preference
Sometimes an issue is not a matter of right and wrong, but each person will make a case for being on the moral high ground. And they don’t get anywhere.
These are areas of “preference,” not right or wrong. Humans tend to see what they prefer as right, especially if one of the preferences has a moral-sounding quality to it, like working and accomplishing something. For some spouses, relationships could be the moral high ground, while their partner might prefer solitude.
Make sure you realize that your desire is not a higher one than your spouse’s. Do not try to win by making yours right and your spouse’s wrong. These are preferences, not laws.
Empathize with and Understand the Importance of Your Spouse’s Desires
Avoid devaluing what your spouse wants. Stay away from statements that make it sound as if what she wants is less important than what you want. Her desires are just as real to her as yours are to you. Validate her desires as real and good.
Move to Meet Your Spouse’s Desires Before You Meet Your Own
If you are trying to make sure that your mate gets what he or she wants first, your arguments will be over who gets to give that day, not who gets his or her own way.
Seek to make sure that your spouse gets his or her desires met before yours are met, and you will avoid most arguments. In reality, this is not going to happen often, but your attitude is what is important.
If Necessary, Keep an Account of Yours, Mine, and Ours
Loving relationships do not require rules, for these couples live by the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. But unloving relationships have to have rules. Because sometimes people act in ways that are unloving, we sometimes need rules.
Make two columns on a piece of paper and keep score of how much time and money you have to spend. Figure out whose “turn” it is to get to have their way that night or with that dollar. Then alternate. One could choose the restaurant or the movie one night, and the other the next. One could spend the first hundred dollars, and then the other.
This might sound childish… and it is! When each person insists that they get their own way, they are acting like children and what’s “fair” needs to be managed.
This system is valuable for couples with differing personalities who drift into unconscious patterns. If you keep an account, you will guard against the passive spouse becoming the perpetual loser. The more assertive one will finally get some limits.
Don’t Define an “I” Choice as a “We” Choice
Some spouses who enjoy “togetherness” define what they want as being for the relationship, when it is really for themselves. They might choose to spend all of their free time doing things together, thinking that is a “we choice” when in reality it is an “I” choice.
Such people feel cheated when the other spouse wants to do something by himself or herself. They feel as if they always give to the relationship and as if the other person is being selfish. This is not true. They are not “giving” to the relationship; they are making personal choices that include the other person because they don’t like doing things alone or apart from the relationship. Make sure that when you want your spouse to do a “we” thing, he or she is really wanting to do that as well. If not, and he or she goes along, remember it is for you and not for both of you.
Make Sure the “We’s” Are Agreed Upon
Make sure you both sign off on activities that are really for the two of you. When you both have to sacrifice for something, make sure that you are on the same page in wanting it and agreeing to it. Otherwise, make sure that you are freely giving to the other person and will not carry a grudge or an emotional debt.
Question Your Preferences
Some of the things on which you take strong stances may not be true desires. Check the motive for your desires. You might find more lasting fulfillment giving to the relationship instead of your “pleasures.” Are you really driven to clean the house to the point that it's spotless every day, or are you motivated by the fact that you get anxious if you aren’t busy? Are you covering your insecurities or feelings of guilt with acts of service or are you giving freely? Check the motives.
Expand and Grow
Instead of fighting for your own way, give in to the preference of your spouse as a learning and stretching experience. You don’t like it now because you might never have let yourself try. Your spouse might know something that you don’t!
Relationships can grow and expand you if you let them. Try to see the activity through your spouse’s eyes, and you might learn to enjoy something you never would have thought possible. Don’t knock it til you try it.
Conflict #5: Desires of One Person Versus the Needs of the Relationship
Sometimes the desire of one spouse conflicts with the needs of the relationship. Mom wants to go back to school, but the couple needs the time or the money. Dad wants to relocate for a promotion, but it would disrupt the family. On the surface, this desire of one member of the family can be seen as selfish because it will cost the relationship or the family something.
The rule here is that there is no rule. If there were a rule, it would be to find balance over the long term. No relationship is going to survive if all the members are not getting some desires met; vice versa, no relationship is going to thrive if the members get their individual needs met and the relationship always suffers. It is good for a relationship at times to “serve” its members.
The problem comes when the marriage always serves one member and never the others. Make sure that over the long haul, the marriage goes on the back burner at times for each member and that each member has learned that the marriage is more important than his or her individual wants.
Marriage means giving up some individual “rights” for the sake of the marriage. But sometimes the marriage returns the favor and sacrifices for the individual. In the end, the marriage benefits as each member grows. But keep it in balance, making sure that the marriage gets served first. Here are some hints:
- Remember that the marriage comes first. Give the best to the relationship before your individual desires. Earn the equity to spend later.
- Be clear about what you want. Don’t passively wish. Tell your spouse clearly.
- Be excited about what your spouse wants for himself or herself individually. Youare “one,” and it is for you as well, even if it seems that it is just “for him or her” right now.
- Make sure that your individual desires that take away from the relationship over the long haul are not unbalanced in terms of what your spouse gets.
- As much as possible, make long-term plans for individual things that take away from the marriage. This way you can plan together to sacrifice, and it is not spur of the moment. Immediate requests feel more like demands.
Conflict #6: Known Versus Unknown Problems
Denial has a bad rap. To be sure, it can be dangerous. When we are in denial about some problem, it can destroy us. And some denial systems are very strategic and intentional. People with substance problems, for example, maneuver a lot to remain unaware of their problem. This kind of denial needs to be assaulted.
But another kind of denial is not intentional. It is the human trait of being “unaware.” Some people are not “in denial,” but they have a “blind spot.” We all have aspects to our personalities and character that we do not know about.
In marriage, your spouse may know more about you than you do. The trick to growth is becoming partner to this secret knowledge. There is a difference between known and unknown problems, however, and they should be handled differently.
Conflict in Known Problems
- If you have talked about a certain pattern before, agree about what you will do if the pattern returns. Agree that the person with the problem is responsible for it once he knows about it, and each party knows what to expect if it happens again.
- If you have talked before and want each other’s help, then confronting will be used not for policing, but for making someone aware. Then confrontation is an attempt to heal, not to control the problem.
- If you know about the problem, the plan to fix it is your responsibility. You are in charge of your own character issues. Don’t blame your spouse in any way for something that you already know about yourself.
- If it is your partner’s problem and she knows about it, don’t enable her. If you do, you are part of the problem. Follow through with the consequences you have agreed upon.
Conflict in Unknown Problems
- Agree with each other that you have permission to tell each other about what you notice. If you are partners in discovery, then you will experience it as teamwork and not control.
- When you are confronted, be open. Don’t be defensive. Accept the feedback, at least agreeing to look at yourself and see if it is true.
- Seek feedback from others also. If your friends tell you the same thing as your spouse, you might believe it more.
- Ask your spouse to show you each time it happens so that you can see the pattern. We tend to think a mistake or problem is a “one-time occurrence” if we don’t know that it is true about us. Catching yourself over and over will slowly convince you.
- Give grace to each other. In areas that are new discoveries for your spouse, change is not going to be immediate. Give him time.