Successful Versus Failing Marriages:
The Difference is in Managing the Differences
Liz Hale, Ph.D., Utah Commission on Marriage
Conflicts, challenges, disagreements, and difficulties: they are inevitable in every marriage. As a matter of fact, every marriage has at least ten irreconcilable differences. So how can we make them work FOR us? According to some impressive marital research, it’s not resolving our differences that make the difference it’s how we manage them that determines marital success! Learning how to manage differences respectfully is part of making a good marriage even better.
Over 35 years of marital research by Dr. John Gottman out of the University of Washington comes the prediction, with more than a 90 percent accuracy rate, of what’s going to happen to a relationship over a three-year period. In a national telephone survey the two issues couples most frequently reported arguing about were money and children; no big surprise, right?
There is a plethora of other common irreconcilable differences, including:
• In-Laws & Extended Family Involvement
• Balance Between Home & Work
• Communication Patterns
• Sexual Intimacy
• Personal Habits & Idiosyncrasies
• Sharing Household Responsibilities
• Outside Friendships
• Political Views
• Debt Difficulties
• Disciplining Children
1) Differences are Not Deficiencies
Let’s embrace them not try to eliminate them! (Or we’re apt to eliminate our mutual love and respect.)
2) Prevent & Eliminate the Negative
Not every issue needs to be raised. Simply loving and caring deeply for our partner may prevent many things from ever becoming issues. Marriage is NOT for getting our needs met; it’s for learning how to love and for finding out where we need to become more refined. For example, maybe we could let go of the dishes left in the sink. Hey, they made it to the sink! Most of life is rather boring; most days are filled with monotony and doing the same things again and again. Find the joy in them anyway!
Couples who are successful have some hidden world within these ordinary moments and these moments are key to couples building friendships and sexual intimacy. Foreplay happens all the time. In Gottman’s “sound relationship house theory,” conflict, friendship, and sense of purpose and meaning form three inter-locking circles.
Known as Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” it is imperative to avoid the following four major patterns when discussing differences:
A) Criticism (attacking another’s character)
B) Contempt (conveying disgust)
C) Defensiveness (blaming; counterattacking partner’s character)
D) Stonewalling (disengaging; withdrawing with no intent to return)
3) Start with Respect & Affection
The most important part of a discussion is the first 3 minutes. More than 96% of the time, the way a conflict discussion starts determines how it will go for the remainder of the conversation. We can either become gird-locked within our perpetual issues OR our dialogues can contain relationship-building laughter, softness, and affection.
Set the stage for a discussion by bringing up issues softly, gently, and calmly. Avoid negative accusatory remarks, sarcasm, critical and contemptuous statements. It’s fine to complain but don’t blame. Speak for yourself. Say, “I felt hurt when you left me alone at the party;” and not, “You are such a selfish jerk!” Be private, appreciative, and polite. If you’re the listening party, listen with your heart and your head. Paraphrase a bit so your partner knows you “get it;” i.e., “You are hurt that I really let you down at the party.”
4) Honor Partner’s Dreams
I worked with a couple recently where the husband was going to go to work for a family member in a business he wasn’t really that crazy about in order to please his complaining wife who was tired of having her husband pursue his dream of music and not make any money at it. It is absolutely critical that you invest in your parent’s dream. Do whatever you can to support, acknowledge, and make those dreams come true. Changing the course of this couple’s direction has made all the difference. The husband felt unbelievably supported by his wife who lovingly said “go back to your studio and make it happen, Baby. I believe in you!” That has made him want to go to the ends of the earth for his wife.
Let me know how your differences are coming along at http://blog.strongermarriage.org. Embrace your differences, don’t eliminate them!