John Gottman says that 69% of marital conflicts are never resolved. The couple just adapts. When couples come to my office for the first time, they fill out an intake page which asks, among other things, “What are you seeking help with?” Invariably, they write “Communication”. Then, when they actually get into it, they are describing conflicts. These could be conflicts of long duration or new conflicts or conflicts that seem new, but are versions of long standing conflicts.
This is where better (possibly entirely new) communication skills come in. Couples can learn a more respectful way of speaking to each other that makes it possible for their partner to hear them. This leads to a new understanding of the partner and their motivations. It doesn’t mean that the conflict is going to be resolved – just that there is a new understanding of why the partner’s position is so important to them.
In the discussion of the conflict, the couple learns to move from Gridlock to Dialogue. Questions are asked about the underlying meaning of the conflict. A big conflict area for many couples is money. If the couple can help each other to understand what the sub-text of the argument is – freedom, love, giving to charity, building a home, caring for elderly parents, independence, sharing, recovery from childhood deprivations – they can understand the real issue at the heart of the money conflict. This new understanding helps to re-establish the friendship which is the foundation of a successful relationship.
So, it is not the conflict that stresses the relationship, it is the negative communication pattern that the couple has become stuck in. More respectful communication can often eliminate a conflict or improve the outcome of even an unsolvable conflict. If a couple can accept that not all problems will be solved, they can build a relationship based on friendship and understanding.