Manage Conflict – Part 1

The real symbol of your relationship health isn’t how perfect your wedding day is. It’s how well you handle the inevitable problems you will face in your marriage.

The real symbol of your relationship health isn’t how perfect your wedding day is. It’s how well you handle the inevitable problems you will face in your marriage.

The real symbol of your relationship health isn’t how perfect your wedding day is. It’s how well you handle the inevitable problems you will face in your marriage.

Wooden carvings of a bride and groom

I often tell pre-married couples there are only two things that absolutely must happen at your wedding. First, you have to show up. Second, you have to sign a piece of paper. That’s it. That’s all that’s required to actually get married and ensure that your wedding is a success.

But of course, couples never believe me. Instead, they commit too much attention to the invoice from the florist, and whether to serve a gluten free meal, and who’s going to make sure A.J. doesn’t get ahold of the microphone. Wedding’s are stressful and complicated and expensive. They’re actually the perfect playground for couples to explore (sometimes for the first time) their capacity for conflict management.

Think about it. It’s the perfect storm of common marital conflict issues. Managing expectations. Dealing with families. Spending money. Compromise. Couples spend a lot of time, energy, and money making sure that they have the perfect day, but it’s never perfect, is it? Something is bound to go wrong at some point. I hope it does. Nobody ever talks about how perfect the wedding is. It’s a much better story when something goes wrong.

Embrace that you’re going to have problems. I love what Dan Wile says: “When choosing a long-term partner… you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems.” You could just as well edit it to say: “When choosing to have a wedding…you will inevitably be choosing to have some problems.” The real symbol of your relationship health isn’t how perfect your wedding day is. It’s how well you handle the inevitable problems you will face in your marriage. That’s why the next level of Gottman’s Sound Relationship House is Manage Conflict.

Managing conflict in the Sound Relationship House is defined as Accepting Your Partner’s Influence, Dialoguing About Problems, and Practicing Self-Soothing. I’ll get to those in later posts, but for now, let’s consider the third most important thing that happens at a wedding. Assuming that you show up and sign the paper, there’s still the matter of the vows.

The vows are pretty well-known and most of us can rattle them off with relative ease. There’s something about having and holding, and til death do we part. There’s also the list of things we’ll endure: better and worse, sickness and health, richer and poorer. It’s good stuff, and I think it’s really important, at a minimum, that you know what you’re saying when you utter those words. You should examine each of those phrases and ponder what they will mean for you and your partner. You should wonder, out loud, about what your vows actually represent. Once you’ve done that, I’d encourage you to take it one step further.

It’s not enough to make promises about what you will do. Consider a promise about what you won’t do as well. One of the the most important pieces of Dr. Gottman’s research is the revelation of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. These four behaviors that are proven relationship killers. They show up in both subtle and overt ways. Sometimes they surprise you. Sometimes they are core styles of relating that have protected you all your life. Whatever they are, you need to do whatever it takes to protect your relationship from their influence.

There are two ways to go about this. The first is to take a personal inventory of your capacity for criticism and defensiveness and stonewalling and contempt. I find that most people have an inclination toward at least one. Take a good look inside and see what your leanings are.

Do you tend express your complaints as a character flaw? Do you rely on phrases like “you always” or “you never?” That’s criticism. Do you have an impulse to refute or rebut the ideas and suggestions coming at you? Do you have a hard time taking responsibility? Do you take all the responsibility? That’s defensiveness. Do you shut down when the moment gets too intense? Do you find yourself self-soothing in ways that harm your relationships? That’s stonewalling. Do you tend to think of yourself — even unconsciously — as better, smarter, more attractive, more righteous, or even more relationally astute than others? That’s contempt.

If you recognize these behaviors in yourself, make it a priority to work on them.  Ask a therapist, or a friend or — gasp — your partner for help. It’s quite possible that, because of limerence, that your partner has unconsciously chosen to ignore some of the symptoms of the Four Horsemen. But as we’ve noted before, limerence doesn’t last; and your commitment to maturity and personal growth in this area is the best wedding gift you can give.

The second way to protect your relationship from the Four Horsemen is to vow to keep them from invading your marriage. Decide together that you will unite in opposition to these toxic behaviors. You will not allow them into your home. Each of the Four Horsemen has an antidote that diminishes their power. Commit to using gentle start up to combat criticism and to taking responsibility as a means to overcoming defensiveness. Learn about appropriate self-soothing as a way to avoid stonewalling. Build a culture of appreciation to keep contempt at bay.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse aren’t technically part of the Sound Relationship House, but any discussion of managing conflict must start here. These Horsemen are determined to destroy your marriage even if your wedding is perfect. So, show up and sign the paper, but more importantly, make a commitment — a vow even — to recognize and reject the Four Horsemen early. If you don’t, it’ll complicate your efforts to Accept Your Partner’s Influence, Dialogue About Problems, and Practice Self-Soothing… all of which we’ll talk about in the coming weeks.

Zach Brittle is a Certified Gottman Therapist, best selling author of The Relationship Alphabet, and host of the highly-rated podcast Marriage Therapy Radio. He has a private practice in Seattle, WA and offers online coaching to couples across the country. He he has been happily married to his wife for 20 of 21 years. Together they have two daughters, a minivan, and most of the silverware they received at their wedding.