Ask the Expert: Dealing with Conflict in Marriage
Hal shares how he and Jenny handle conflict in their relationship.
Dear Hal, I know that you and your wife just wrote this marriage book together, which had to be difficult. How do you guys handle conflict in your relationship?
Toney S., East Lansing, MI
Well, Toney, here was my first introduction to a ScreamFree, self-centered marriage:
"Honey, I love you and I love us, and that's why I have to tell you this: I don't like you right now."
My lovely bride Jenny, the only woman I'd ever dated, was choosing to authentically represent her thoughts and feelings to me. She was not angry in her mood, nor whiny in her tone. She was simply, assuredly, truthful.
Now, it’s not like these words came as a surprise to me, though. Jenny is not such a good actress, and I am not such a clueless dolt, that I was totally taken aback by her revelation. I knew she had been a bit annoyed with me, and I actually took it as a relief that she was finally admitting it in a forthright way.
I know what you may be thinking. "She's just picking a fight!" Or, "She's being selfish and unkind." Perhaps you're thinking just the opposite, "You go, girl!" Probably depends on your gender. And whether or not you know Jenny and me personally. (Those of you that do, I get it, you’re cheering for Jenny.)
But actually, I think all of the reactions above are misguided. Jenny was not being selfish at all, and she was not trying to defeat me or put me in my place. In reality, by taking the courage to truthfully represent herself to me, in a calm and even caring way, Jenny was actually taking an intimate step towards me.
That’s right, I said intimate. When done in a calm, centered way, even the words “I don’t like you” can be a step of intimacy in a marriage. This is because choosing to represent your truest self to your spouse, even when it’s something potentially negative, is a step towards your spouse. You love your spouse, and because of that you no longer want to keep hiding your growing resentment. You want to calm your anxiety, embrace the potential conflict like a grown up, and confess your feelings.
What I will openly tell you is that Jenny and I, in our eighteenth year of marriage, rarely go a day without some sort of uncomfortable conversation. Even when one of us is traveling; it can occur through a series of texts. “Hey, I dunno if u meant that last txt to be mean, but…ouch.”
We’re learning to willingly embrace these little conflicts, address them up front, and then move on. See, Toney, we’re no longer afraid of this kind of conflict, because we’re scared to death of resentment. Resentment, that ever-growing sense of unspoken injustice, is the biggest enemy of marriage. It is the tiny bark beetle that slowly, but surely, eats away the 100-foot pine tree from within. But resentment only grows when spouses are afraid to authentically represent themselves in the moment.
Jenny and I have moved past that, or we’re at least trying to do so. At the same time, we’re also learning that some couples are not meant to work together. It’s one thing to learn to address the natural conflicts of marriage, it’s quite another to create new, huge conflicts by trying to work side-by-side. I can pretty much assure you, therefore, that while we are both hugely proud of The Self-Centered Marriage, it will be the last book we ever write together.