The first year of marriage is often thought of as the honeymoon phase. Navigating a new relationship can be exciting, especially if we were anticipating it our entire lives. Yet couples typically find that just days or weeks after the wedding, fear, and uncertainty start to settle into the walls of their new homes, as they notice differences between their needs, routines, and beliefs. These variances can be as seemingly simple as the temperature in the bedroom at night or as significant as expressing anger. This can lead to resentment, avoidance, or bitter disagreement.
In my practice, I have seen couples experience “aha” moments when they realize that their spouses look at a particular issue very differently than they do. For some, this realization can be scary and lonely. Learning to address differences is a primary task of marriage, and conflict is often where differences manifest most intensely.
How we address conflict can make the difference between a frustrating, distant relationship and an incredibly fulfilling one. When we leave conflict unaddressed we generate resentment, which can be the biggest threat to our relationships. Thus, when we learn how to face conflict effectively, we not only avoid hurting our spouses (and ourselves), we also deepen our relationships and have a greater capacity to cultivate trust, love, and connection with our partners.
Here are 5 tools that can help us manage conflict to build a stronger relationship:
1. Know Your Raw Spots. According to Dr. Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, we all have “raw spots.” These are heavily charged parts of ourselves connected to past experiences that are easily triggered and intensify feelings of fear, insecurity, anger or hurt. When we leave them unaddressed, resentment is born.
Identifying our raw spots, sharing them with our spouses, and teaching our spouses what we need when a raw spot is touched is extremely beneficial for deepening intimacy and trust. When we speak to the feelings underneath our raw spots, we help each other feel seen and truly heard.
To create this system, we can start by asking ourselves when we feel triggered:
- “Why is this upsetting me?”
- “What does this make me feel about myself, my spouse, or marriage?”
- “What do I need to feel better?”
Once we have this understanding of ourselves, we can then share this insight with our spouses using this format:
“I feel _______when _______ happens, and the reason this is significant for me is because of ____ (situation or dynamic in my past). When you do ______, it is healing for me and I feel loved and understood.”
This may feel unnatural and scripted, but through practice, it will feel more comfortable and can help us develop our own language for safely communicating how we feel to one another.
2. Validate, especially during conflict. When we share vulnerably with our spouses it is vital that we validate one another so that we lower each other’s defenses and open ourselves to the other’s perspective. Validation does not mean agreeing with the other’s perspective; rather it is communicating an understanding of the other’s point.
The art of validating is to put ourselves in the speaker’s shoes so we can feel the emotion they feel, and then communicate that we understand why they feel the way they do. This leaves everyone feeling understood and heard. Examples of validating statements are, “it makes sense you feel this way”, “when I am in this situation I would also feel _____”, “I get what you’re saying”, and “I hear you.”
3. Pause to Recalibrate. When fights get intense and we feel we are going in circles, we can break the cycle with a loving look, hand holding, a slow hug, a quiet walk, or listen to music together. These gestures remind us that underneath the conflict are two people who love and care about one another and the ultimate goal is to feel closer.
Our own self-care plays an influential role in conflict. Our conversations will be impacted by factors like the lateness of the hour, feeling hungry, or having had a bad day at work. Obviously, there will always be life stress, but it is important to create space for these discussions where there is minimal distraction both externally and internally so that we can be as present as possible.
4. Debrief about the Conflict. Discussing how we feel about the way we fought, will better prepare us to handle the same issue when it comes up again. Disagreements can be intense, even in the most respectful relationships. When fights take a counterproductive turn, it is important to discuss what went wrong- once we have calmed down and collected our thoughts.
Some questions we can ask:
- “I see I didn’t respond in the way you hoped, can you share with me what you needed when discussing this?”
- “I see you feel hurt by our conversation, can you share with me what was hurtful to you and what I can do in the future to show you I understand your feelings?”
5. Be silly. Have fun. It is crucial that we create the time and space in our routine to laugh and have fun with our spouses so that the intensities of conflict resolution are balanced with humor and silliness. According to Dr. John Gottman’s research on marriages, we maintain healthy relationships by keeping a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative interactions and gestures. For every negative moment that we have, we need five positive ones to create a sense of security, positivity, and wellbeing in our dynamic. If we mistakenly insulted our spouse, for example, taking the time to actively listen, crack a joke, or send a loving text message can help restore this ratio. We can also infuse the relationship with overall positivity through date nights, games, comedy shows, or trying something new together.
The first year of marriage brings the opportunity for growth and deeper connection. As we are all unique human beings, we inevitably have differences and experience conflict in our relationships. Instead of fearing it, we can accept and utilize conflict by developing strong relationship habits that allow us to be there meaningfully for ourselves and our partners. It is through taking advantage of the tremendous opportunity of the new and building this foundation that we can form beautiful, connective marriages for many years to come.