In every marriage, even in great, long-term marriages, there are conflicts. In great marriages these conflicts are resolved quickly with a minimum of friction. In newer marriages, especially when the husband and wife are young, these conflicts can become quite painful and long-standing until the love that once brought the couple together is destroyed and the marriage with it.
The biggest reason for these conflicts are the childhood hurts and our defenses against them that we carry forward into our adult love lives. Hurts like neglect, humiliation, abandonment, emotional suffocation, rejection, verbal and physical abuse, emotional coldness, all require from children methods of defense to help them cope. But while some of us have better memories of this than others, all of us enter into our marriages and love lives largely unconscious of how these childhood wounds and their defenses cause great conflict and pain with our partners. Add to this that we diabolically choose partners whose defenses rewound us and vice versa and it’s no wonder that our marriages can become unbearably confusing and painful. Add a husband, for example, who was smothered in love by an overbearing mother with a wife whose parents were cold and distant and you end up with a classic pattern of pursuer and avoider. Harville Hendrix’s Getting the Love You Want brilliantly outlines this process.
The second biggest reason for conflict is when a couple want different things because of different values. A classic example is when one spouse is a saver and the other is a spender. Other examples include when one spouse prefers private intimacy while the other, social contact and group fun; or when one likes to plan and organize and the other prefers a more casual and spontaneous life style. These conflicts become most pronounced when children arrive and Mom and Dad are deeply invested in what they think is best for each child. These conflicts can become quite bitter.
Then there are is the classic one of temperamental differences, differences of style and energy. A marriage where one spouse is mostly calm and steady and the other is passionate, expressive, and fluctuating can sometimes provide a nice balance of temperamental differences. Like the wheel, the more steady partner becomes the stable hub holding the wheel together, while the more energetic partner is the rim which, in turning, provides the dynamic forward movement. But if this difference is too great, the wheel will fly apart and the couple experience conflicts that become intense followed by a gradual decrease in mutual interest. Eventually the couple come to a parallel marriage with spouses who are married in name only. This is ripe ground for affairs of opportunity or desperation.
Another large category of conflict comes from underestimating what great marriages need. Great marriages need frequent, if not daily, attention in which husbands and wives reaffirm their love for each other. Sometimes we don’t understand this because either we have never seen a great marriage, or we think that great marriage are simply lucky marriages. But like anything else that’s living, a great marriage requires frequent injections of positive energy. Here both the husband and wife can be clueless. Some men think that being a good provider is mostly their job when, in fact, even great wealth and job prestige will never replace the need for emotional and physical intimacy with their wives. I’ve seen my share of men who thought this way only to wake up one morning with a marriage in crises because their wives feel neglected, unloved, and desperate. Some women think that being a great mom is enough when, often, both the children and the marriage would do far better with more energy given to the marriage. I’ve seen my share of wives who lose the loyalty of their husbands because they always put the children ahead of the marriage.
But perhaps the saddest category of marital conflict is caused by the ego, i.e. conflict in which we identify completely with what we want. Where we could be more flexible, generous, and gracious, we dig in deeper and deeper against compromise. The one thing for sure is that a great marriage and an engorged ego are completely incompatible. Where there is one, the other is totally absent. I’ve watched too many men and women cling to their point of view as if their very lives depended on it while they also squeezed every bit of love out of their marriage like the juice out of an orange. To have a great marriage, we need to check our ego in at the door like we would a dangerous weapon. With some, the ego is so large it’s a weapon of mass destruction. Then we no longer call it ego. We call it narcissism.
There are some conflicts that have no resolution because they kill love before it can even begin to grow. Conflicts with a spouse who is abusive have no resolution until the abuse utterly stops. Likewise with conflicts cause by narcissism, alcohol and drug abuse, addiction, anti-social and unlawful behavior, child neglect, and affairs.
The real point to conflict in marriage is to cause the lovers to grow and, therefore, grow in their capacity to love. Marriage is a crucible in which every part of us will intermingle until there is no way to hold back, hide, pretend, or coast. Conflict either means that within marriage’s crucible, we find we can’t stay married without damaging our souls, or we contain our egos and not only respectfully express to our spouse our heartfelt hurts, fears, legitimate emotional and physical needs, and the genuine call for spiritual fulfillment, but also listen with an open heart to the same from our spouse.
And the sooner after conflict begins we can begin this exchange, the faster our love will grow. In great marriages conflict is not allowed to go unaddressed for long. Often it is dealt with in real time so eager are the lovers to restore their loving feelings for each other. Resolution, the sooner the better, is a powerful stimulant for greater love.
But the couple have to put the love for each other higher than their own separate wants. They have to care as much for the other’s welfare as for their own. Perhaps the story that best embodies the selfless spirit needed for conflict resolution that great marriages have is O’Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. Della, the wife, and Jim, her husband, live in poverty. It’s Christmas and neither have the money to get the other a present. So to buy Jim a gold chain for his watch, Della cuts and sells her long, thick hair. To buy Della combs of ivory for her beautiful hair, Jim sells his watch. Now they are left with gifts that neither can use, but with the priceless realization of how far they are willing to go to love each other.
When you and I care as much for each other’s happiness as Della and Jim, we will always resolve our conflicts. We will always have a great marriage.