After having a bit of a heated conversation with my husband the other day, I had an epiphany. Not a single person in my life prepared me for handling marriage conflicts! As someone who grew up in a single parent home, I never had a chance to see a married couple handle disputes in a healthy way. My husband grew up in a traditional two-parent home, but even he never experienced healthy conflict resolution between his parents.
The most recent data shows that for every 1,000 marriages, 14.9% of them will end in divorce. According to the Gottman Institute, half of all couples that divorce do so within the first 7 years of a marriage. That could be for many reasons, but it’s hard to ignore that unhealthy conflict resolution could lead to divorce. Learning how to handle conflicts in marriage could be the very thing that keeps it together.
The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse
Dr. John Gottman, world renowned marriage therapist and author, found four negative behaviors that he believed to be disastrous for marriages. He coined these behaviors the “Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse,” because he believed that if a couple displayed one or more of these behaviors in their marriage, it would almost always end in divorce. The Four Horsemen are:
Often when we are in a conflict with our spouse, if we’re not careful, we can fall into one or more of these “four horsemen” behaviors. In fact, some of us may have never known another way of resolving conflict other than to display one or more of these behaviors.
Knowledge is power. Knowing what we shouldn’t do can be just as powerful as what you should do. When dealing with conflicts in your marriage, I highly recommend watching out for these “four horsemen” behaviors. If they seem to be common in your marriage, don’t see it as a sign of the end, but learn from it. My hope is that these following tips can help you reverse the potential “four horsemen” tendencies in your conflicts, and turn them into constructive and peaceful conversations.
1- Take a deep breath, and enter the conversation with a level head
We often enter into arguments or conflicts when our tempers are still raging hot. The problem with that is when our tempers are raging, we can say things we don’t always mean. Entering into a tough conversation with a level head will make the possibility for healthy conflict resolution much more likely.
If a conflict rises and you’re feeling the heat, ask your spouse if you can continue the conversation later in the day when you’re more calm, then walk away. Give yourself some time to cool off before entering into the conversation again. You can even schedule a specific time when you’ll both have the conversation.
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “never go to bed angry.” In my opinion, I find that if you try to hash things out when you’re both tired and angry, you’ll never resolve it. Agreeing to revisit the situation at a time when you’re both rested and more calm will make resolving the conflict much more possible.
If you decide to walk away from a conflict because you’re too overwhelmed or angry, be sure to revisit the conversation. Be leery of potentially stonewalling (hello, Four Horsemen), and don’t just let a conflict hang in the air. There’s a healthy balance between hashing it out when you’re both a 10/10 on the anger scale and avoiding the conversation completely. Aim for that calm middle where you can both peacefully contribute to the conversation.
2- Remember you’re both on the same team
Often when people talk about marriage conflicts, they make it into a “whose gonna win this time” kind of argument. The problem with that mindset is that you are on the same team. If you’re battling someone on the same team as you, then nobody wins.
Remembering you’re on the same team will make you more likely to listen to your spouse, and genuinely consider their points of view. It will also make you more open to compromise if necessary. The way I see it, if you’re on the same team with your spouse, either you both win or nobody wins.
3- Trade your “You” for an “I”
One of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” authored by Dr. Gottman is criticism. This is different from offering constructive criticism, this kind of criticism attacks your spouse at their core. Most of the time, criticisms will start with a “you” statement, and will be more about who your spouse is to their core, and not how their actions make you feel.
The way you combat critical talk is by reframing how you share your concerns. Instead of going straight for the jugular by saying “you did…” or “you always…” try using an “I” statement instead.
An “I” statement might sound like:
- “I feel stressed out when you don’t put your dirty clothes in the laundry basket.”
- “I’m feeling overwhelmed at the amount of dirty dishes there are in the sink.”
- “When you don’t consult me on big financial decisions, it makes me feel left out and unimportant.”
Reframing your concerns with “I” statements makes your point clear, but in a conversational way and not an accusatory way. For example, if your husband is not putting their dirty laundry in the basket, it may be honest of you to say, “you’re such a slob! Put your dirty clothes in the basket!” But the way you said it was accusing and not conversational.
Saying how you feel with an “I” statement can feel very unnatural if you’re not used to it. With time and practice, it can absolutely be a game changer for resolving conflicts in your marriage. My husband and I were both very good at using “you” statements early in our marriage. It wasn’t until maybe 7 or 8 years into our marriage that I realized how harsh those “you” statements were. With time and practice we’ve both made it a point to use “I” statements when explaining how we feel about something. It has opened up communication so much more for us.
4- Give space for your spouse to speak, and listen
As someone who often forgets thoughts unless I say them out loud, giving my husband a chance to speak is incredibly difficult for me. But we also need to remember that conflict resolution is a two way street. You need to listen just as much, if not more, than you speak.
One of the other “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” coined by Dr. Gottman is defensiveness. This is when either partner looks for excuses or reacts to conflict defensively instead of with an open mind. When we genuinely listen to our spouses concerns and give them room to speak, that also requires us to avoid defensive language.
A trick I learned in my teaching days was to use some kind of object to signal whose turn it is to talk. In the classroom, we often used a ball, but you can use whatever you wish. When it’s your turn to speak, you can hold the “it’s my turn” object, and when it’s your spouses turn they can hold it. When it’s not your turn, make it a point to listen intently to what your spouse is saying.
5- Work towards a solution you can mutually agree on
Like I stated earlier, resolving marriage conflicts should never be about winning an argument. Yes, sometimes the solution you want will end up being the one that happens, which seems like a win in your book. But if you’re looking at every time a solution isn’t your solution as a loss, then you’re not resolving anything, you’re just fighting.
When working towards a solution, aim for a happy middle that both of you can agree on. Some people will make lists of multiple solutions with their spouse, and pick one together. Others may do pro and con lists together. Regardless of what seems most natural for you, work towards a happy middle.
6- Be willing to compromise, but also know where you can’t Budge
“Compromise” seems to be a magical term in marriage, probably because marriages that are good at mutual compromise are often healthy. The trick to good compromise is remembering that in marriage conflicts, not one person wins or loses. Either you both win, or nobody wins.
Don’t let compromise and lacking boundaries be synonymous though. Understand what in your life you’re able to budge on, and what things are hard no’s. This goes both ways as well. Understand where your spouses boundaries lie as well. When each person mutually respects each others boundaries, then compromise can be done in a healthy manner.
7- Have Humility
At some point, we all say things we don’t mean to say. In marriage, it’s basically a given that at some point in time, you’re going to say the wrong thing. Being able to admit you were wrong, as well as offering forgiveness freely is key to quelling marriage conflicts.
As I mentioned before, one of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” is defensiveness. If you or your spouse are always trying to defend themselves, then situations simply can’t be resolved. Being willing to admit you’re wrong and ask for forgiveness is key in resolving any conflict, especially in marriage.
8- Recognize when it may be time to get help
Getting professional help in your marriage isn’t a nail in the coffin! If anything, getting professional help is a symbol that you and your spouse value your marriage so much that you’re willing to get help.
Marriage counselors are equipped to help you work through conflicts in a variety of ways. They can offer methods more geared towards your specific needs, and be a mutual third party for you and your spouse.
Only you can be the one to determine whether you need professional marriage counseling, but there are some red flags that may signal that you may need to seek professional help.
9- Spot The red flags
My hope is that in laying out this framework that you and your spouse could resolve whatever conflict you have. In reality, some people have underlying issues that may inhibit their ability to resolve conflict peacefully. Whether it be mental health struggles, personality differences, or baggage that hasn’t been dealt with, some marriage conflicts may raise some red flags.
If you spot some of these red flags, I highly recommend seeking our professional help and/or third party mediation from a pastor, counselor, or marriage mediator (XO Marriage offers wonderful marriage mediation services). Here’s a few red flags to look out for:
- Consistent gaslighting
- Consistent name calling, finger pointing, or scapegoating
- Verbal and/or physical abuse
- Lacking the ability to find fault within themselves (aka. narcissism)
- Threatening behavior, either towards you, family members, or themselves
- Suicidal threatening or ideations
I could go on, but if it seems that conflict always brings up these or other red flags, please take note of it. You and your families safety should take priority.
It’s Not About Never Fighting, It’s About Fighting Fair
I used to think that getting into arguments with your spouse was a sign of the end. Any time my husband and I would have the slightest disagreement, I would automatically assume he’d be dropping the “D” word soon! We’ve been married almost 10 years now, and have had plenty of conflicts rise up. Over the years we’ve resolved some of them in the perfect textbook ways, and others not so much. I’ve come to understand that fighting is not necessarily a sign of the end, it’s when you fight dirty that things spell trouble.
You will have conflicts with your spouse. Do not ever enter a marriage thinking you and your husband are never going to fight. Everyone disagrees at some point. My hope with these tips that when the disagreements come, you’ll have the tools to fight fair. At the end of the day, healthy conflict resolution almost always leads to a healthier, happier marriage.
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