THE BLOG
03/10/2016 11:18 am ET Updated Mar 11, 2017

Can A Marriage Thrive With Unresolved Conflict?

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For most of my life, I've believed the myth that good marriages are relatively free of conflict. This misconception has caused me anguish on many occasions. It's also been shared by my clients as they complain about perpetual conflict in their marriage and consider divorce as an option to marital distress.

According to author Marcia Naomi Berger, many couples believe that if a marriage is healthy all issues get resolved. She writes: "Simply put, it is not the presence of conflict that stresses the relationship; it is the manner in which the couple responds. Positive, respectful communication about differences helps keep a marriage thriving." This view that many problems in a marriage can be managed is shared by relationship expert Dr. John Gottman who advises us that couples can live with unsolvable differences about ongoing issues in their relationship as long as they aren't deal breakers.

Additionally, Dr. Gottman's research informs us that 69% of problems in a marriage don't get resolved but can be managed successfully. There is some evidence that differences between partners can be complimentary. That they are advantageous and don't create a hindrance to the relationship. Instead, they contribute to its growth. When each partner approaches one another as an equal, working through conflict can nourish rather than drain a relationship.

For instance, Jena and Trevor, both in their mid-thirties and married for eight years argue about household chores. "I've been unhappy with Trevor's messiness for some time," complains Jena. "I've asked Trevor to be more considerate of my needs and put his clothes away, but things don't appear to be changing. It feels like I'm at the bottom of his list." To this Trevor laments: "Jena puts too much focus on neatness and misses the big picture. Most guys are slobs and I think I do OK." The common thread in these statements is this couple's focus on "fixing" the other person rather than on taking specific actions to change their part in a relationship dynamic that is undesirable.

During their second counseling session, I had both Jena and Trevor make a list of their priorities and non-negotiable deal breakers. Interestingly, Jena decided she could tolerate Trevor's messiness as long as he continued to do his own laundry and take his shirts to the cleaners. On the other hand, Trevor felt that he could live with Jena's complaints about his messiness if she could find ways to compliment him more for his nice qualities -- such as being a good cook and supportive partner.

It appears that Jena and Trevor have learned the art of compromise. The authors of the study The Normal Bar write: "This seems to be the core secret for relationship happiness: frequent compromises over time, and balance in giving and getting, conceding and winning."

What is the meaning of the word compromise? It's a settlement by which each side makes concessions. And while this doesn't sound romantic, if you decide you want to save your marriage, you have to learn to negotiate -- which is the essence of compromise. Negotiation is about diplomacy and is a tool that will help you and your partner get on the same side and to become intimately connected.

Further, distinguished psychologist Harriet Lerner posits that a good fight can clear the air. She writes: "and it's nice to know we can survive conflict and even learn from it. Many couples, however, get trapped in endless rounds of fighting and blaming that they don't know how to get out of. When fights go unchecked and unrepaired, they can eventually erode love and respect which are the bedrock of any successful relationship."

Some people avoid conflict because it may have signified the end of their parents' marriage or lead to bitter disputes. Marriage counselor, Michele Weiner Davis explains that avoiding conflict backfires in intimate relationships. She posits that bottling up negative thoughts and feelings doesn't give your partner a chance to change their behavior. Weiner cautions that one of the secrets of a good marriage or romantic relationship is learning to choose battles wisely and to distinguish between petty issues and important ones.

Studies show that productive arguments can actually help couples stay together. Dr. John Gottman, founder of the Gottman Institute, found that happy couples learn ways to have more productive disagreements that are more like discussions than arguments. He posits that the thing that seems to be breaking up many couples is difficulty bouncing back from a conflict or disagreement in a healthy way. Gottman tells Business Insider that you've got to get back on track after a fight if you don't want issues to fester.

7 steps to dealing effectively with conflict in intimate relationships (based on Gottman's research and my clinical observations):

Create time and a relaxed atmosphere to interact with your partner on a regular basis. Ask for what you need in an assertive (non-aggressive) way and be willing to see your partner's side of the story.

Approach conflict with a problem-solving attitude. Avoid trying to prove a point and examine your part in a disagreement. Listen to your partner's requests and ask for clarification on issues than are unclear. Discuss expectations to avoid misunderstandings. Take a risk and deal with hurt feelings -- especially if it's an important issue rather than stonewalling or shutting down.

Use "I" statements rather than "you" statements that tend to come across as blameful -- such as "I felt hurt when purchased the car without discussing it with me."
Take a short break if you feel overwhelmed or flooded. This will give you time to calm down and collect your thoughts.

Show attunement with your partner with non-verbal eye contact, body posture, and gestures that demonstrate your intention to listen and compromise.

Determine your deal-breakers -- those non-negotiable items that are crucial to your happiness. For instance, your partner might want an open relationship and you might feel strongly that both you and your partner need to honor fidelity.

Establish an open-ended dialogue. Don't make threats. Avoid saying things you'll regret later. Be assertive yet open in your attempts to negotiate for what you want from your partner. Both individuals in a relationship deserve to get some (not all) of their needs met.

In closing, using compromise is an essential tool to preserving a marriage. Discussing concerns that arise with your partner in a timely and respectful way will help you become better at repair skills. If you embrace the notion that conflict is an inevitable part of an intimate relationship, and that not all problems have to be resolved, you'll bounce back from disagreements faster and build a successful long-lasting relationship.

Follow Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Terry is pleased to announce that her new book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents' Breakup and Enjoy A Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship was published in January of 2016.