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The Seven Conflicts
Resolving the Most Common Disagreements in Marriage
By Tim Downs, Joy Downs
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2003 Tim And Joy Downs
All rights reserved.
the four stages of marital conflict
Several years ago we spoke at a weekend marriage conference in Cincinnati. It was Friday night, the conference was about to begin, and several hundred people had gathered in the Hyatt Regency ballroom. I (Tim) decided to kick off the weekend with a personal touch.
"I'd like to find the couple here tonight who has been married the longest," I said. "Not the couple who feels like they've been married the longest—the couple who has actually logged the most miles. Any volunteers?"
Older couples glanced about the ballroom, assessing their chances, and then hands began to slowly rise. Thirty-two years over on the left, thirty-five years back by the doorway, thirty-seven years right in the middle of the ballroom ...
The winners were a couple sitting right in the front row. Because they were so accessible, I decided to ask them to come up on the platform with me for a little impromptu interview. As the audience applauded, they worked their way up to the podium and stood beside me, the woman to my left, her husband beside her.
"First of all," I began, "exactly how long have you been married?" I held out the microphone to the husband.
"Forty-seven years," he beamed. The audience erupted inapplause. As I was taking the microphone away I felt an icy hand seize my wrist. The woman pulled the microphone in front of her.
"Forty-eight years," she said as she glared at her husband. "We were married in 1939! You never can remember that!"
Now the man took the microphone again.
"Forty-seven years," he said defiantly, "and it hasn't been easy!"
Conflict is a part of every marriage, whether you've been married seven years or forty-seven. It can be a major source of anger, discouragement, and regret—but it doesn't have to be. When couples learn to handle conflict correctly, they are able to put their disagreements behind them, one at a time, as they are resolved. Like last year's scrapes and bruises, they were once painful but now almost forgotten. For these couples, past conflicts are nothing more than a part of their marital history, and their history is powerless to harm them.
It's the present that can destroy you.
Imagine a world where people can be injured, but no one can heal. A broken arm would require a splint forever; a wound would fester and seep for a lifetime. A bruise would never disappear, a scrape would be a constant annoyance, and a toothache would never cease. Imagine the lengths to which people would go in such a world to avoid injury. Imagine the premium that would be placed on beauty and the penalty that would be assigned for injuring another person. But most of all, imagine the pain that people would live with every day of their lives.
This is not an imaginary world; it is inhabited by those who never learn to handle conflict constructively. Their conflicts never become history. Like seeping wounds, their disagreements are always a part of the present. Every unresolved argument is a sore that never heals—a constant source of friction and annoyance—and every new disagreement is exacerbated by the last. Imagine the pain these people must live with every day of their lives. Imagine the lengths to which they would go to avoid conflict.
When couples fail to resolve their disagreements constructively, their attitude toward conflict tends to evolve through four distinct stages over the course of the marriage.
Have It Your Way
She: Honey, may I ask a small favor?
He: Of course, Darling, anything for you.
She: Would you mind very much changing your entire personality for me?
He: It's the least I can do.
Couples who are just married tend to settle arguments quickly by simply deferring to each other. There is great motivation early on to avoid awkward confrontations that seem to drain the romance from the new relationship. Newly married couples find romance and conflict to be mutually exclusive, and so the operating principle at this stage is "Have it your way"—whatever it takes to preserve peace between us.
But after just a year or two of marriage, couples begin to tire of endlessly giving in. They begin to realize that their partner's aggravating personal habits and annoying personality quirks really matter. They still want peace—but they slowly realize that there is such a thing as "peace at too great a price," and they enter the second phase of marital conflict.
Have It My Way
He: Would you mind not doing that?
He: That thing you do with your nails. You click your nails.
She: You never mentioned it before.
He: Well, I'm mentioning it now. It bugs me.
With this revelation, her mind begins to open to the possibilities. "If we're going to start mentioning things that bother us," she reasons, "I've got a few hundred things that I could mention too." She may actually say this out loud, which is then the beginning of an entire evening's entertainment.
In the second phase of marital conflict, couples tend to swing to the other extreme. They begin to assert their own needs and wants, reasoning that the problem all along has been their silence. They begin to feel that they are being taken advantage of. While she has been deferring, he has been getting his own way—and he, of course, feels exactly the same way about her. Now they begin to give voice to a whole series of preferences that have become increasingly clear to them after two years of life in Pleasantville. "Idon't like this, I do want that ..."
But the second phase is exhausting, and after realizing that they'll get nowhere by endlessly butting heads, the couple attempts to bargain and compromise. That's the third phase.
Have It Our Way
She: I thought you were going to start picking up your own clothes.
He: I thought you were going to start putting gas in the car. You left it on empty. Again.
She: I'll get gas if you pick up your clothes.
He: (Pauses) Who goes first?
She: We'll both go on "three." Ready?
The third phase is a stage of compromise and negotiation, when couples begin to realize that if they can just put their heads together instead of banging them together, they might be able to work out their differences. And so the negotiations begin. They confront each disagreement with eagerness and enthusiasm. They listen, they discuss, and they compromise, over and over again—over and over and over again. Then one day the eagerness and enthusiasm begin to fade.
In the third phase couples begin to face more and more of the difficult issues of life together: in-law relationships, job pressures, increasing time demands, financial struggles, parenting decisions.... There's more and more to disagree about— and disagree they do. Now conflicts seem to bombard them from all sides. There just isn't time to discuss them all, and even when there's time, there isn't enough energy. They begin to feel as if they are furiously bailing out a sinking boat, but the water continues to rise. They differ on all kinds of issues, and the sheer number of differences may cause them to begin to question how compatible they really are.
They're ready for the fourth and final phase ...
Have It Any Way You Want
She: Can I talk to you about something?
He: What is it now?
She: I think you need to spend more time with the kids.
She: Fine? You mean you will?
He: Okay. Sure. Whatever.
For those who fail to resolve conflict constructively, the fourth phase is a period of resignation. Exhausted by the energy crisis of daily life and hopeless over the backlog of unresolved issues waiting to be discussed, they become pacifists. Have it any way you want. What's the point in fighting about it?
By this time the couple has negotiated and compromised on an exhausting number of minor preferences and desires. But a handful of stubborn disagreements still remains, and these issues seem to crop up again and again with discouraging regularity. Like ancient Rome, all roads lead to them. No matter what topic begins the disagreement, sooner or later the partners find themselves on familiar ground. "Oh no, not this again!" We call these unsolvable issues the Seven Conflicts of marriage.
The Seven Conflicts are a reality for all married couples, and they are a source of ongoing frustration and discouragement. Their very existence is annoying. Couples feel they should have resolved these differences by this time, and their failure to do so must mean something is wrong between them. Not at all.
Psychologist John Gottman is a relationship expert who has studied the conflict styles of married couples for many years. He believes that all marital conflicts fall into one of two categories. "Either they can be resolved," he writes, "or they are perpetual, which means they will be a part of your lives forever, in some form or another." Gottman estimates that almost 70 percent of marital conflicts are perpetual. "The majority of marital problems fall into this category—69 percent, to be exact. Time and again when we do four-year follow-ups of couples, we find that they are still arguing about precisely the same issue. It's as if four minutes have passed rather than four years."
If Gottman is correct, only three out of ten marital disagreements will have a tidy solution. The rest, like an alien shape-shifter, will return to visit us again and again in some unexpected form.
Couples in the fourth stage often wonder if these unresolved issues reveal some secret weakness in their partner. Each begins to suspect the other of immaturity, pride, or sheer pig-headedness. They know that when the subject inevitably shifts to one of those topics, there will be no resolution. They will end up, as always, in an angry stalemate, burying the disagreement like toxic waste until it surfaces again another day.
How do the Seven Conflicts develop? Our first disagreements in marriage are over relatively minor issues; later, they are over more significant ones; after several years we have whittled down our areas of disagreement to the ones that really matter to us. They are far more than opinions or even values—they are a part of the way we see the world itself. Over the years, as we express our differences and resolve them, we engage in a kind of pruning process: First we cut away twigs, then branches, then limbs, until we finally come to the trunk of the tree itself.
The Seven Conflicts are the result of fundamental convictions all of us possess about how life and love and marriage ought to work. They tell us what's good and bad, right and wrong, fair and unjust. They are the operating system of our computer; they are behind the scenes, invisible, but always running in the background. They are the result of gender differences, environmental influences, and individual temperament—but regardless of the source, by the time we are adults, they are so intimate a part of us that we are no more aware of them than we are the color of our own eyes.
And that's the problem. We all assume that we are marrying someone just like us, with similar opinions and values and tastes, unaware that far below the surface there may reside a worldview that differs from our own at significant points—and these differences will ultimately surface in the form of the Seven Conflicts. Each of these arguments represents a clash of world-views, and each disagreement appears impossible to resolve because it seems inconceivable to consider the issue from any other perspective than the one we know to be correct. Like the spot where the retina attaches to the optic nerve, there are no receptor cells at all; the Seven Conflicts represent our most persistent blind spots.
When we lose hope of ever really resolving our deepest differences, the Seven Conflicts become the "no-man's-land" of marriage. We're forced to constantly check ourselves: Don't go there. We begin to fence off areas of the relationship where no one dares to tread—but we do this at a great price. The benefit of this approach is peace, or at least the absence of conflict, but the price of this evasion is the very thing we want most from marriage—true intimacy.
The fourth stage of marital conflict is the final stage, and it has been recognized by students of the human condition for thousands of years. In the book of Proverbs, collected three millennia ago, Solomon characterized the fourth stage this way: "It is better to live in a corner of the roof than in a house shared with a contentious woman" (25:24). Better to live in the attic, he said, than to have to endure endless conflict.
Many couples who begin marriage with perfectly lovely homes end up spending much of their lives in a cold, dark attic. They don't have to. It's a short distance back from the attic to the family room—and even the bedroom—once they learn to recognize and anticipate the seven fundamental issues that divide us all.CHAPTER 2
I have a dream
Tim:I grew up in a time not that long ago but in a world that no longer exists. I remember a white split-level home in suburban St. Louis on an acre and a half of zoysia as soft as a down comforter. I remember a mother who lived to serve her family and a father who was strict and severe but emotionally absent. I remember walking to school, coming home without homework, and simply telling my mother, "I'm going out." Out where? "To play." I rode my bike on busy streets without a helmet, wore PF Flyers that cost $9.95 a pair, and carried an Uncle Henry pocketknife wherever I went. What I loved most about my childhood is that I was free.
Joy: I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, in a neighborhood where every child belonged to every family. We spent every summer day together at the neighborhood pool, and through the year we all walked together to school and back. We walked home for lunch as well—we walked through the woods, through places I would never allow my children to walk today. But my parents never had to worry if I would make it home each day, because, above all, my neighborhood was safe.
Tim: There are things about my childhood I loved, and things I despised. There are parts of my early days that I long to reproduce in my own family, and things I'll do most anything to avoid. The irony is, I'm not always sure what those things are; they live invisibly inside me, lurking in the background, operating not as specific goals but as indefinable longings—as dreams. Like post-hypnotic suggestions, they inform all my conscious actions, though I'm seldom aware they even exist. As I grew up, I collected a series of fuzzy mental images of how my life would look one day. How it should look. I have a dream.
Joy: When we got married, Tim naturally expected that his wife would share not only his tastes and opinions, but his dreams as well. What he never counted on is that I would have dreams of my own—very different dreams. This difference in our mental images, this disparity in our "shoulds" and "oughts," was what originally attracted us to each other. But in marriage, the same differences became the source of many of our disagreements. He had his dreams, and I had mine. It took us quite a while to understand that our biggest conflicts would come when we were both right.
Excerpted from The Seven Conflicts by Tim Downs, Joy Downs. Copyright © 2003 Tim And Joy Downs. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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