Marital Conflict
Marital Conflict
by James E. Barrick, Ph.D. ©2013

 If there were only two people on earth, there would still be conflicts, e.g. “Hey, stay out of my apple orchard,” or “You just ate my apple,” etc.

 So we (Society) invented lawyers and judges to protect our rights, rather than drawing swords. Society also invented marital therapists to resolve conflicts within marriage.

     Very few people get married in order to have conflict. Yet by the very nature and structure of marriage there is more room for conflict than in any other human endeavor. Even in war, no one would suggest you share your bed with your enemy, much less pass the toast and jam for breakfast. The high degree of intimacy called for in a marriage is within the most intense and personal relationship that human's have devised. This is both a strength and a weakness of the marital state. It is a strength in that we can make that intimacy into a fantastic opportunity for personal growth and development. It is a weakness in that we are constantly tested to deal with conflict in our most vulnerable state.

     Many people seek outside professional assistance for marital problems when it is, unfortunately, too late. Perhaps an analogy will clarify the point:

     As the fire truck pulls up to the address in response to a call, the firemen are somewhat overwhelmed by what they see. The house has been engulfed in flames and has now burned down to the floorboards. The roof and the walls have been totally consumed, leaving only the foundation as an outline of what once was a home. Sitting on opposite sides of the lawn, the spouses are sorting among their few, personal, possessions salvaged from the destruction of their home.

     After the last ember is extinguished, one fireman approaches the couple and asks, “Why wasn't the alarm turned in sooner? Why weren't we called before it got to this state? We might have been able to save it. We could have contained the blaze before it destroyed everything.”

     The husband might respond, “We thought we could handle it ourselves. Besides, it wasn't my fault, my wife’s responsible for the fire. She should have called.” To which the wife usually responds, “But you saw it first, you should have called.” The sad truth is that by not acting sooner, to save what they could, they both contributed to the loss, and they are both responsible.

     Usually the couple in conflict shows up after they are polarized and one spouse is ready to leave the relationship. Then, in desperation, they call for help, long after the warning signals have been sent and received, time and time again. Needless to say, this makes the task of the marital therapist an uphill battle to provide this couple with assistance.

 

     The first thing the therapist has to do is establish a role that is totally impartial. The therapist must insist, to gain any ability to be useful, on a strict neutrality. It is destructive, not helpful, for the therapist to take sides, for then one spouse will disengage from therapy. Without the neutrality the therapist would be no different than the husband's friend, or the wife's relative, who support only one side of a mutual disaster.

 

     Nor can the therapist take the position that the marriage should be saved, or the position that it should be ended, because whichever position is taken will threaten, and alienate, one of the spouses.

     Then what can the therapist do to assist both husband and wife? From my experience, the initial neutrality allows me to listen to both people, and let them know that what they are saying is being heard. Being heard is usually the first casualty in marital conflict. “You never listen to me,” or “You're not hearing what I'm saying,” is often the first clue that something is amiss in a relationship.

      It is also useful to point out to the conflicted couple the benefits of my neutrality. It is easier for both to accept that the focus of therapy is to resolve their problems, whether they decide, in the future, to stay together or separate. For if, after working on their problems, they decide to stay together, they have been learning how to resolve their conflicts. On the other hand, if they decide to split up, there is less emotional and psychological upset. There is less trauma and bitterness associated with the separation and divorce. There is less likelihood that someone will be counting the olives, in the jar in the refrigerator, to make sure that everything is evenly divided.

     As an additional benefit of therapy, it is important for each spouse to learn what they brought to the relationship that placed it in jeopardy. That way, if they stay together, they can return to a state of intimacy that will foster their own growth. If they decide to split up, at least they will have learned enough about themselves to avoid making the same mistakes again. And if there is one thing that people do, if they don't learn about their own role in the breakup of a relationship, it is to continue in the same behavior patterns as before, which usually include making the same mistakes, over and over again. This is especially true, as in our analogy, when both partners are too busy  trying to blame the other person for the conflict to examine their own involvement.

     Making other people responsible for our lives rarely makes our lives better, for then we rarely bother looking within ourselves. Looking outward leads to further personal disasters, because then we must impose even tighter expectations on future partners, or mates, in order that we won't be hurt again. After a few more unfulfilling relationships, there is such a tremendous expectation that it is doubtful that anyone could fulfill it. At that point the searcher often stops searching, swearing off all men (or women), for the time being, anyhow. This may be a healthy development. For then the individual may just start looking inward in search of themselves, and what they contributed to the destruction of their relationships.

     It is harder, in my opinion, to learn about your problems in relationships, when you are alone than when you have a spouse/mate/partner to assist you. If each partner uses their current relationship, however strained it might be, as a vehicle to pursue an awareness of themselves, then the relationship can change. In that situation, whether they decide to stay together, or separate, the process is less likely to be attributed to the other person. It is more likely to be an individual, or a joint, decision that has less anger, bitterness, and less trauma involved for all concerned. For each spouse/mate/ partner has been cooperating in reducing the conflicts, if only to clarify their own role and take responsibility for it, in helping each other to learn what went astray, and how to prevent it from happening again, whether with each other or someone else.

     This is especially true when there are children involved. Recent trends in custody and visitation issues focus on the children's rights to have contact with both parents, as the children's rights, not the parents'. Therefore, when children are involved, there will be continued contact between former spouses in arranging the visitation and shared physical custody. Once the furniture and financial settlements are made, that's it. With children, however, the parents can anticipate continued contact and interaction, based on the children's ages, from one to seventeen years. The energy expended in marital therapy, in learning to cooperate, should a divorce still occur, can certainly reduce the anger and anguish in continuing to deal with each other during the years that the children are growing up and traveling between the parents' homes. It is much less likely, between parents who have learned to work with each other as they ended their relationship, that the children would be used, consciously or unconsciously, as pawns in an ongoing conflict between their parents.

     The California legislature has attempted to deal with the problems of visitation and custody. Since 1981, it is a requirement that both parents attend Mandatory Mediation, with a mental health professional, to see if the parents can come up with a joint agreement about custody and visitation before the legal confrontation occurs in court.

     In the Mandatory Mediation the goal is more focused than in marital therapy, as there is less emphasis on the interpersonal dynamics. The goal of mediation is an agreement about custody and visitation. This goal is rarely reached when the parents are continuing the conflicts from their marriage. The more they try to blame each other, the less cooperative they'll be in the future. If the attempt at a mediated agreement fails, because the parents cannot agree, then it will be up to the court to impose a legal decision that neither parent may prefer. Much of this post-divorce trauma could be alleviated if the couple seek out, and utilize, marital therapy, before divorcing.

     Marital therapy, focusing on the relationship, can best be accomplished when both spouses feel comfortable with the therapist. By “comfortable” I do not mean complacent. It is vital to seek out someone that will sufficiently challenge, encourage, and support each  spouse in a detailed examination about their conflicts, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Only then can each spouse's assumptions about marriage and relationships be examined, new alternatives explored, new plans and strategies tried, and old conflicts reduced, or ended. Cooperation between spouses is essential because either one could sabotage the marital therapy. However, even if one spouse does try to sabotage the marital therapy, they will both learn what is going on that can be avoided in the future, e.g. the spouse that is trying to work on the conflict will soon realize that there is nothing he/she can do, and develop an independent plan that does not include the other spouse.

     There are a wide variety of mental health professionals engaged in marital therapy. Psychologists, Marriage, Family and Child Counselors, Licensed Clinical Social Workers, Clergymen and Psychiatrists are the typical professionals most likely to be trained to provide marital therapy. Whether a couple seeks out the assistance of marital therapy with a private practitioner, or through a public agency, it is important to consider two things. First is the issue of cost, considering that legal fees for divorces between uncooperative spouses can be two to four times the cost of therapy. Second, is whether you can afford not to get marital therapy.