Happy Wife, Happy Life? Not so fast...

David Olsen, Ph.D., LCSW and Erin Belanger, LMHC

We’ve all heard the saying, “Happy wife, happy life”, and maybe we’ve even bought into the belief that making our spouse happy is the key to a happy marriage. While it might sound counterintuitive, healthy conflict is actually a necessary part of all relationships - in fact, it is a key component in building intimacy. Conflict that goes underground and is not resolved, or conflict that becomes chaotic and explosive are two types of significant blocks to intimacy. In the next three newsletters, we will explore different types of conflict. You can assess whether you are an avoider/placater, a brawler, or just good old passive-aggressive.

Part 1:  Avoiders/Placators

No one likes conflict! In fact, we have experienced couples coming in for sessions on a Friday asking to keep the session “light” so they could have a good weekend. But in reality, avoiding conflict can actually kill intimacy in marriage. Too often, couples who claim that they never fight, also complain that they have no intimacy. Ironically, while avoiding conflict does make for polite relationships, it is also one of the biggest blocks to deep intimacy.

Typically, couples believe that they avoid conflict for very good reasons. They do not want to upset their spouse; they want to keep things calm; or it just takes too much energy. Yet, in avoiding conflict, important issues will be driven underground and the pair will grow further apart.

Couples avoid conflict for a number of reasons. Perhaps they grew up in a high-conflict family where anger easily got out of control, and great damage was inflicted on everyone. If you grew up in this type of family, you will carry a type of hypervigilance that will make you want to avoid conflict at all costs. And if there was alcoholism or substance abuse, it is even more complicated. There might have been great destruction in your family, such as abuse or abandonment. If you grew up in that environment, you might have learned to try to keep everyone calm and avoid conflict at all costs.

Others worry about their spouse: “If I am really honest, can s/he handle it?” They doubt that their partner will be able cope with what is stirred up by their honest feedback. They believe that to keep the marriage stable, they have to be careful not to upset their spouse by talking about their frustrations, or at times even their needs. Instead, they keep things as calm as possible by not bringing up things that bother them.

Some fear that their relationship is so fragile that if conflict surfaces, they will not be able to handle it. These couples work hard to keep everything polite in order to protect their relationship. Couples avoid conflict because they are convinced that the alternative is too dangerous.  And their strategy works: things stay calm. But in the end, they pay a heavy price: their intimacy.

Learning to face conflict

To successfully learn to build better conflict resolution skills, there are a number of steps that have to be taken.

  1. Identify the source of the fear of conflict, perhaps by talking with a skilled therapist. Explore questions like:
  2. What is your deepest fear about opening up conflict?
  3. Is it rooted in unresolved family of origin material where conflict was handled badly?
  4. Is it rooted in fears that your spouse or relationship cannot tolerate conflict?

It is important to face these fears with a trained therapist to sort through whether these are based on your current reality or whether they are old fears being reactivated in the present.

  1. Develop skills to handle conflict non-reactively:
  2. Start soft: always begin talking about conflict when you are calm, not when you are angry - no one benefits from beginning with saved up frustration.
  3. Begin with an “I statement”. Never attack or put your partner on the defensive: simply state what you want and need.
  4. Take responsibility for keeping the discussion on track. If your partner generalizes with statements like “so you’re saying I’m a terrible husband?” bring the discussion back to a specific concern by saying, “No you are wonderful husband, but I would like more support with parenting our children.”
  5. Always make repair. John Gottman’s research suggests healthy couples have conflict but always make repair. Repair means checking-in with our partner the next day by saying, “Last night we had a difficult conversation… I want to make sure you are OK and check in to see if we need more discussion. I want to make sure we both feel understood.”

These are difficult skills to learn, and may require the help of a couples therapist. In the end, however, it is worth the effort and will result in a more intimate and honest relationship.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our series: the brawlers!