5 Essential Steps in Resolving Marital Conflict

5 Essential Steps in Resolving Marital Conflict

Do you feel like trying to resolve a conflict with your spouse will only end up in another blow-out fight? Perhaps you have given up and instead are stuffing down your feelings to avoid conflict at all costs. Or maybe you both have become so angry and on edge that every “discussion” turns into an enormous fight. Take this couple, for example:

Wife: “You never think about my needs! When are you going to start doing something around here! I feel like you are the other child in the house! I do everything myself– I’d be better off single!”

What are the chances that her husband responds like this?

Husband: “Oh, I am so sorry, Honey. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I will work really hard at being more thoughtful and helpful. It means a lot to me that you took the time to draw this to my attention.”

Perhaps when hell freezes over! So how do you bring up a difficult issue with your spouse without triggering World War III?

5 Essential Steps in Resolving Marital Conflict 

Below are 5 essential steps grounded in the Gottman Method for couples counseling that will set you up for success when you seek to resolve conflict with your spouse. There are many problems couples face that cause marital conflict, but for today, we will examine a fictitious couple who seems to struggle with the workload of tending to their home. The wife stays at home and is struggling with a sense of injustice that she bears the burden of caring for the house. The husband is coping with stress from work and wants his home to be a place to relax. Let’s look at how the Gottman Method might be applied to this conflict…

Step 1: Identify Your Need

So often couples react to each other in the heat of the moment, which typically results in a rapid descent into defensiveness, anger, criticism, contempt, and stonewalling. Definitely not an outcome that will result in resolving a problem! So, when you have something difficult to say to your spouse, take time to calm your emotions, reduce negativity, and identify what you need. 

Scenario A:

“My need is to tell my husband that I am sick of the way he sits around watching sports while I do everything on the weekends.” [Nope, this one won’t work. She needs time to calm her emotions and shift away from the blaming tone.]

Scenario B:

“My need is to talk to my husband about how we could divide household tasks, so we have time to relax together on the weekends.” [Sounds like she has identified the need she would like to express to her husband and is prepared for Step 2.]

Step 2: Take Some Responsibility

If you come to the discussion with the plan to let your spouse know that they are wrong and you are right, it is almost a guaranteed fail. It is critical that you approach this interaction with an awareness of your contribution to the problem. It takes humility to own your part, so dig deep and figure out where you have room for improvement.

Scenario A:

“Can we talk about how you never do any chores around here anymore, and I do everything?” [Um, that will not go well. No humility here. No one wants to have a discussion with the premise: “I am perfect, and you are a jerk.”]

Scenario B:

“I know that I have been totally slacking on laundry lately and it is even hard to walk across the bedroom floor because of my trail of clothes, so when I say I want to figure out how we can get things done around here, I know I am not without fault. I just feel we need a better plan to get weekend chores done.” [Notice the “we” approach, the awareness of being part of the problem, and the absence of blame. They are ready for Step 3.]

Step 3:  Use a Soft Start-Up

When you know you have something difficult to bring up to your spouse, set the tone by using a soft start-up. Soft start-ups are just as they sound–a manner of bringing up a discussion gently, so the listener is more likely to be receptive. Introduce a challenging subject by sharing something positive about your spouse that is related to that which you are about to discuss. Some clients have asked, “Isn’t this just false flattery, buttering them up?” Yes, it can be… 

Scenario A:

“Honey, do you have a few minutes to talk? You are so handsome, but can we talk about how we can get things done around here? The house is such a mess.” [Nice compliment, possibly insincere, awkward, and oddly unrelated to her topic.]

The goal is to actually share something you genuinely respect or admire about them…

Scenario B: 

“Honey, do you a few minutes to talk? I know your job is so demanding and you work so hard. I have always respected your all-in commitment when you put your mind to it. And I know you are so tired after a long week at work. I get it. I was just wondering if we could talk about the best way to get tasks done around here on the weekends.” [Notice how she opened with a statement honoring his strengths related to his work ethic. This will disarm him and will likely prevent him from feeling he is being accused of being lazy. They are ready for Step 4.]

Step 4: Listen

Now that you have brought up your concern, it is important to truly listen to your spouse’s perspective. Listen without judgment, set your agenda aside, and take time to learn what the issue feels like from the other side. If you find yourself preparing your rebuttal while your spouse is sharing his/her thoughts and feelings, notice this and refocus your energy toward listening. 

Scenario A: 

He says: “I just feel like I need time to relax with my cup of coffee on Saturday morning…”

She thinks sarcastically: “Well, wouldn’t I love to have time to sit and have coffee. At least someone is doing something around this house. I remember the time when he sat in the kitchen, and I was busy scrubbing a crusty pan from the night before…When he gets done talking, I’m going to remind him about how last Saturday he didn’t…” [Oops! She has been preparing her rebuttal and missed most of what he said with all her straying, angry thoughts. She has not gained his perspective.]

Scenario B: 

He said: “I just feel like I need time to relax with my cup of coffee on Saturday morning, and you always want to jump right into things in the morning. Sometimes I feel like you are nagging me. I know you are frustrated, but also, I am slow to start in the morning.” 

She said: “I can see how that could feel like nagging. I’m sorry. It’s just that I get so frustrated with the mounds of mess around here that I just can’t let it go.” [Sounds like she truly heard him. They are ready for step 5.]

Step 5: YIELD TO WIN!

“Yield to Win,” coined by John Gottman, are three words that best summarize an imperative strategy in resolving a conflict with your partner. When we play sports or board games, the goal is to win, right? And that is all well and good with games, but in relationships, if we approach conflict with the goal to win, the relationship will lose! The only way to win in a relationship is to yield to each other with an openness to compromise and respectful sensitivity to the rights and needs of your spouse. 

Scenario A:

“Because I don’t work outside the home, I stay at home all week and do all of the household chores. I think on weekends, you should do them all.” [Hmm…not too much yielding here. Ask questions and try to let the solution emerge mutually.]

Scenario B:

“What if on weekends I do the chores you really detest and vice versa? Like, I actually don’t mind doing laundry, and I know you can’t stand it, so I’ll maybe I do the laundry. And maybe you could clean our bathroom on weekends?” [Sounds like she is now considering his needs, keeping fairness in mind, and is genuinely seeking a compromise. This approach will likely result in a win.]

So, remember when you want to resolve a conflict: identify your need, take responsibility for your part in the conflict, use a soft start-up, genuinely listen, and YIELD TO WIN. If you can make this a process a habit, it will be a game-changer for your relationship.

Let North Star Therapy Help You

If you are experiencing conflict in your relationship and are feeling overwhelmed by your struggles, reach out to Ruth at North Star Therapy for couples counseling. Your relationship is worth it.