Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Drop The Conflict, Get Into Counseling

June 7, 1999

Do you feel stuck in a marriage with poor communication habits? Do you have too many arguments that go nowhere and stir up with hostility and hurt feelings? Do you start off with the best intentions only to have your conversations deteriorate into anger, retorts, withdrawal, and frustration?

You have worked to solve these problems on your own. Recognize that your best efforts aren't good enough. Goodness knows how many times and different ways you've tried to get to the bottom of your conflicts.

Talking about problems actually makes things worse. One of you still wants to try to talk things out while the other recognizes the destructive pattern and is reluctant to open up the same wounds and hurt. Yet without talking nothing will be solved either. Are you starting to wonder how you are ever going turn things around?

If your marriage has a history of unresolved conflict, poor communications and problem-solving, then here are some ideas to try.

Go for counseling. Try counseling while you have the energy and goodwill toward each other. Consider the delight of your courtship, the good times and memories of your marriage, the commitment you have to your children to provide a loving home and your own sense of honor about the promises you made when you entered into the covenant of marriage. Your marriage is worth a fight to save it.

Most marriage problems of this nature can be solved. Find a trusted third party who can work with your problems and restore order and goodwill to your discussions. Get the best word of mouth referral you can get. If you don't click with the counselor or the counseling doesn't seem to work, try again.

Go while you both feel like trying. Don't wait until most feelings are dead and basic commitment is questioned. Marriage counseling is harder when one party is indifferent or skeptical and the other one is panicked and desperate.

The best way to avoid divorce is to address problems soon enough. If you get no for an answer and then go underground with your discouragement, pretty soon the shoe is on the other foot and your partner will want counseling while you feel it won’t do any good.

Take a break. Once you are in counseling, relax and allow the counselor to guide you through the morass of conflict. Be patient. Take hope. You already know what happens when you argue on your own. It leads to further disappointment and you don't need to be more discouraged than you are.

The anxious partner who feels the most apprehension about the marriage may have trouble letting go of his or her need to speed up the process. If fact, it is their misguided and relentless pressure that has become a part of the problem. Their partner often feels harassed and blamed for trying to avoid arguments that in their judgment only makes things worse. The avoidant spouse wants to solve the problems but in a context of emotional safety and mutual respect.

Keep the peace. What do you do? You remain positive or neutral with each other. Drop your anger and hostility. Keep the peace. This will be a needed relief. Make small talk. Visit about everything but the "hot button" issues that need to be addressed in counseling.

With the commitment to counseling, your real concerns will be addressed systematically. The fact that your partner has agreed to counseling is a bold statement about his or her willingness to work on your problems. That is enough for right now.

Get away from "tit for tat." By this point both partners have usually withdrawn from actively meeting their partner's needs or are engaged in a power struggle. When needs are not being met, one common tactic is to be unpleasant as a means of forcing or coercing change from their partner. Husbands and wives react to each other with anger and/or deny each other pleasure and intimacy in hopes that their partner will respond with love and warmth.

It doesn't work. Unfortunately, each partner sees the other as withholding love. They are waiting for the "quid pro quo," an attitude of "I will do this if you do that." The only problem is that "that" doesn't happen and nobody is being constructive.

Be good to each other. Instead of just engaging in the "tit for tat" mentality, each partner can independently go out of his or her way to please their partner regardless of their partner's response. The goodwill created by loving acts makes it easier for a mate to lower their defenses and respond in kind.

How can couples get back that loving feeling? Ask what is wanted. Act on what you learn. Is it a back rub? Is it a walk? Pick out a few things that are easy for you to do. Do them daily and with no strings attached. Be kind. Show your love in unexpected ways. Have some fun together. When important needs are being met, couples begin to identify with each other as a source of pleasure once again.

The miracle is, as you turn your attention and energy to meeting your partner's needs, the love you send out will be welcomed and perhaps evoke a loving response. When a couple simultaneously act in loving ways, it sets the stage for counseling to be effective. But if you can't do that, being neutral instead of negative is a big step in the right direction.