Resolution, Not Conflict

The guide to problem-solving.

Marriage Arguments: Can All Conflicts Be Resolved?

Gottman: No! Heitler: Yes! Can these psychologists resolve their conflict?

Marriage arguments: Can all conflicts be resolved?

Replace marriage arguments with win-win discussions.


Marriage arguments can be upsetting.  Most therapists agree that fixing marriage problems requires that couples learn to resolve their differences collaboratively, without criticism, anger or fighting.  Where we differ is on the question of whether all marriage conflicts can be resolved that way.  

Marriage researcher John Gottman says "No. Of course all conflicts cannot be resolved." As a marriage therapist and an author on mutliple books about how to resolve conflict, I myself espouse the opposite perspective.  I say adamantly "Yes. All marriage conflicts can be resolved."  

I was delighted therefore when in response to my recent post on the topic Do All Couples Fight?, I received a thought-provoking letter from the Gottman Institute re-stating John Gottman's position on this issue.  The result was the following blog-based dialogue resolving our conflict.

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Why is the question about whether all marriage arguments can be resolved important?

John Gottman is a highly respected marriage researcher, and deservedly so.  His studies of the causes of divorce for instance enable him to predict with impressive accuracy which newly married couples are likely to succeed in staying together and which will be likely to split up. When a person of this stature states that "of course we know that all conflicts can not be resolved," other therapy professionals listen.  The result is that his view has become quite prevalent among marriage therapists, who therefore give up too easily on expecting to be able to guide the couples they work with to agreement on all their areas of contention.

I see marriage arguments as being the equivalent of accidents on a roadway.  Skillful drivers aim for a zero accident record.  I therefore regard it as vital, for the safety of their relationship, that spouses upgrade their skills until their odds of having perpetual marriage conflicts goes down to virtually zero. 

Toward the goal of helping couples learn to resolve all of their differences, I have studied the skills that professional mediators use in the business and legal worlds and have written about them in my various publications, translating these skills into language appropriate for discussing personal issues.

The rest of this blogpost reprints a lightly edited version of the discussion between the Gottman Institute and me from that took place in the Comments to my Do All Couples Fight? article.  Warmest thanks to the Gottman Institute, and also to the several other therapists/educators who contributed their perspectives, for participating in this discussion.

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Comment #1 to Do All Couples Fight?Submitted by The Gottman Institute 

Some excellent points are made in this article Susan! We would like to respond to your labeling of Dr. Gottman as "mistaken" by offering an explanation of the Gottman Method and its approach to conflict management. When you heard Dr. Gottman say that "all couples fight," he was referring to the perpetual conflict that exists in all relationships.

In his ongoing 40+ years of research with over 3,000 couples, Dr. Gottman has found that unresolvable "perpetual" problems exist in even the healthiest of relationships due to "lasting personality differences between partners" (Gottman, "The Science of Trust"). The goal is then to manage conflict, not resolve it, by understanding the historical basis of each partner’s deeply held values and supporting the most crucial parts of these “dreams within conflict." While you state that Harriet Lerner's post "sets needlessly low and even harmful aspirations for people who believe it," your claim that all conflict can be solved is both alarming and dangerous, as it sets an equally unrealistic expectation for couples.

Your point that these differences can be talked about in a cooperative manner rather than fighting about them is an excellent one. We agree! The masters of relationships soften the way they bring up an issue; they accept influence from one another; they consistently communicate acceptance of one another; they keep their level of physiological arousal low; they pre-empt negativity in the interaction; they repair the interaction and de-escalate if it does become negative; and they move gently toward compromise.

In contrast, partners who are "disasters" in their relationships either escalate their negative expressions during conflict and voice very little that is positive, or they maintain a state of icy, emotional disengagement.

Comment #2, Submitted by David Goshorn 

What if these two were a couple? How would they resolve this conflict? One believes that there is such a thing as perpetual and unresolvable problems that can be managed and help lead the couple to a happy and healthy relationship. The other believes that all problems can be resolved through a win-win strategy that will help lead the couple to a happy and healthy relationship.

I'm curious to find out how each would approach this problem and come out the other side with a collaborative and synergistic approach. 

… Please, for the sake of my marriage, and all the marriages you want to reach, find a way to work through the differences. …

-David Goshorn
Success Coach

Comment #3, Submitted by Susan Heitler, Ph.D. 

Thank you to the Gottman Institute for expressing your alternative viewpoint and also to David Goshorn for suggesting a thought that I'd had as well: let's demo here how this professional "conflict" of differing viewpoints might be resolved.

To show how we might reach resolution, I've written (below) an imaginary dialogue between the Gottman Institute folks (whom I'll refer to as GI) and myself (DrH).  The dialogue follows the three steps that in my books From Conflict to Resolution (for therapists) and The Power of Two (for couples) I call "the win-in waltz."   While my terminology differs, the three steps are those that the landmark book Getting To Yes in the mediation literature refers to as "interest-based" as opposed to "positional" bargaining. 

 

An Imagined Conflict Resolution Dialogue Between the Gottman Institute and Dr. Heitler

Step 1. Express initial differing positions:

GI: (Gottman Institute): every couple has some issues of "perpetual conflict"
 that never get resolved.  At best they can learn to manage these differences cooperatively, that is, without marriage arguments.

DrH: All conflicts can be resolved if the participants have sufficient skills.

Both:  Looks like our views do differ here. 

Step 2. Explore underlying concerns:

[Note here that all the concerns of both of us go on one list. Any concern of theirs is immediately my concern as well; any concern of mine goes similarly on their concerns list. This structure implements the Gottman principle of "they accept influence from one another."]

DrH: I agree with all the principles of collaborative dialogue that you suggest in your Comment:

"The masters of relationships soften the way they bring up an issue; they accept influence from one another; they consistently communicate acceptance of one another; they keep their level of physiological arousal low; they pre-empt negativity in the interaction; they repair the interaction and de-escalate if it does become negative."

Talking about differences depends on these and other vital principles to stay cooperative and productive.  

GI: Good. We're on the same wavelength there.

At the same time, my research has found that unresolvable "perpetual" problems exist in even the healthiest of relationships.   This finding is at the root of my three concerns with regard to my disagreement with your statement that "all concerns can be resolved."

First, I'm concerned that couples not continue to fight about these issues.  It's better for them to learn to "manage," that is, to accept, seek to understand and work around, these issues instead.  

Second, my concern is that couples not feel that their marriage is a bad one just because they have a few unresolvables.  

Third, I am concerned that your perspective is alarming and dangerous because it sets an unrealistic expectation for couples.

DrH: I agree with all three of your concerns. I have found similarly that most couples, and especially couples who seek out counseling help, do have at least one and often several issues that they have been unable to resolve.  I agree that managing these conflicts cooperatively definitely beats perpetual arguments.  And I also agree that setting standards too high can set people up to feel a sense of failure.

At the same time, I assume that conflicts persist because resolving them would take skills that go beyond the couple's existing skill sets.  My concern is that telling couples that all conflicts cannot be resolved encourages them to give up instead of learning the skills that would enable them to consistently reach win-win outcomes.

GI: We have found that unresolvable "perpetual" problems exist in even the healthiest of relationships due to "lasting personality differences between partners."

DrH: My way of approaching "personality factors" is to regard them as underlying concerns.  The solutions that couples create to their differences need to be responsive to these concerns.  That's key to the difference between arguing about my solution versus  your solution ("positional bargaining") and exploring together both participants' underlying concerns, which leads to being able to create win-win solutions.

Concerns may be practical concerns or may be deeper psychological concerns such as the ones you refer to as "personality factors." Exploring underlying concerns takes strong collaborative talking and listening skills such as the ones you were describing earlier in this discussion.  

Once both spouses have expressed their own and clearly understand their partner's underlying concerns, they can begin to co-create a win-win solution, that is, a solution that is fully responsive to all of the conerns of both of them.  

Here's a personal example of a perpetual marriage argument from the early years in my own marriage.  Because at that time both my husband and I were relatively clueless about how to do win-win conflict resolution, we were typical of the couples you describe.  While we clearly loved each other, we had one frustrating disagreement that went on for years. 

My husband always used to nap after dinner. That was fine with me until we had children, four kids six and under.  Then I felt desparate for his help after dinner with putting our crew of little ones to bed.

Now, looking back with what I've learned in the 35 years since then, I can see that we were missing two key conflict resolution skills:

a) When we tried to talk through our marriage argument, we didn't switch from insisting each on our preferred solutions to exploring underlying concerns.  We just stayed frozen in a frustrating tug-of-war over what to do.

and

b) We didn't know to each look at what we ourselves could offer toward a solution. Instead I was telling my husband what I wanted him to do, and he was telling me what I should do to handle bedtimes without his help.

One could call these skill deficits, or be harsh and label us by negative personality labels like stubborn or bossy. Needless to say, I prefer to think of them as skill deficits.

If we had known then what we both understand now, we would have explored my husband’s concern that he just couldn't maintain alertness after dinner. And that I couldn't handle getting all four kids through their bedtime routines of taking baths, putting on pj's, brushing teeth and reading them bedtime stories on my own.  Their teeth especially concerned me because tooth decay ran in my family.

The bedtime process felt especially overwhelming because of the layout of our house, which was the big house my husband and his four siblings had grown up in. I felt like the ball in a pinball machine bouncing between 2 bathrooms and 4 bedrooms.

Once we both understood our own and each other's concerns, what if we each had looked to find what we ourselves each could have offered toward solution instead of telling each other what we thought they should do?

My husband might have offered to put the kids in their pj's and give them their baths while I was cooking dinner. That would have made a major dent in the tasks left for me to do with them after dinner while he napped.

I might have suggested that I could have the kids all brush their teeth in one bathroom.  Then I wouldn’t have been overwhelmed by running between the boys' and the girls' bathrooms to check that the kids teeth were all brushed adequately.

I might have suggested too that I'd have all the kids climb into one bed for me to read stories to them initially as a group.

My husband might have added that after his nap he'd be glad to come in to read individual stories for each of the kids in their own beds to finish off bedtimes. He might also want to sit in the hallway and play banjo for them after he'd closed the lights.

I would then have said, "I love it. How about if I bring my guitar and we can enjoy singing together while they go to sleep?"

GI: I like your example. One thing it clarifies for me is that, as I said in my comment above, I've been thinking in terms of finding "compromises" rather than looking for what you call “win-win.”

A compromise in your example would have been that your husband would nap every other evening, or maybe that you'd take turns doing the bedtime. 

I can see now that you are utilizing a different system of conflict resolution, one that hinges on the switch from a tug-of-war over solution ideas, or at best a compromise, to a system of exploring underlying concerns. With your "win-win waltz" system, win-win means finding a solution responsive to all the concerns, not one person "winning" his way with regard to initial solution ideas.

DrH: I'm delighted that the difference in these two methods of resolving conflicts has become clear.   With the tug-of-war, some issues are likely to become perpetual conflicts. By contrast, with exploring underlying concerns and then creating new solution ideas from there, conflicts can pretty much always be resolved.

GI: Yes, a different process maybe could get different results.

DrH: I also totally agree with you that some issues will always resist solution if the only options appear to be either one side giving up on what they want, or both sides giving up some to find a "compromise." After a compromise, both spouses are likely to feel 'compromised.'   The conflict then is likely to continue to hover because the solution feels less than fully satisfactory.

GI: So it looks like we have resolved our conflict!

We both agree that if couples do not know how to do the win-win decision-making process you just illustrated, they will continue to have some conflicts that seem perpetually unresolvable.

And at the same time, with the addition of win-win skills plus the collaborative dialogue skills that we both agree are essential, pretty much all conflicts maybe can be resolved... though I’d like to see more examples and research before I agree completely.

DrH:  Alas, most folks just don't have the high-level skills it would take to tackle their most difficult issues.  And I certainly agree that managing differences cooperatively sure beats perpetual marriage arguments.

The hardest to resolve issues that I've seen couples face are about geography. When one is dedicated to living in one place, say where they have a good job offer, and the other is wedded to another distant locale, maybe because they want to stay close to family, that’s a tough one.  I once did a live TV demo of win-win problem-solving on that topic; it was challenging, though the couple did succeed in finding a solution that they both were happy about.

Another tough issue I see in my clinical practice is when one spouse is behaving out of bounds (e.g., addictions, affairs or excessive anger) and is unwilling to do something to change. Win-win takes two people who are both willing to make changes toward a mutually better way of doing things.

GI: Yes, those are good examples of potential "unresolvables." Looks again like we have resolved our conflict!

Comment #4, Submitted by The Gottman Institute 

This was an excellent representation, Dr. Heitler. Thank you for your response. Your simulated roleplay is well-crafted, insightful, and certainly represents The Gottman Institute accurately. It was never our intention to instigate a conflict, but rather to prove an explanation for our alternative viewpoint - which isn't that different after all!

To answer your question about the definition of "personality differences," we are speaking to the differences in personality characteristics that result from culture of origin, parenting style, childhood trauma, etc. Here are some examples of perpetual problems that happy couples in our research were living with:

1. Chris is lax about housework and rarely does his share of the chores until Susan nags him, which makes him angry.


2. Elise wants to spend less time with Joel and more time with her friends. Joel says this makes him feel abandoned. Elise says that she needs time away from him. He seems very needy to her, and she's feeling suffocated by him.


3. Anita thinks Bert is stingy about tipping waiters, cab drivers, and so on. This upsets her because part of her image of a strong, supportive husband is someone who's generous. When she's disappointed with Bert, she gets very contemptuous of him. Meanwhile, Bert believes that Anna is too loose with their money, which makes him nervous. To him, money represents security and a sense of control over his life, so it's hard to give any of it up.

Despite their differences, these couples remained very satisfied with their marriages because they had hit upon a way to deal with their unbudgeable problem so it didn't overwhelm them. These couples intuitively understood that problems are inevitably part of a relationship, much the way chronic physical ailments are inevitable as you get older. We may not love these problems, but we are able to cope with them, to avoid situations that worsen them, and to develop strategies and routines to help us deal with them. 

Comment #5 Submitted by Susan Heitler, Ph.D. 

Warmest thanks again for participating in this constructive dialogue.

The role of expectations here is intriguing to me. My expectation of myself as a therapist, given my model of conflict resolution, would be that the three issues above all are resolvable issues. They sound typical of the conflicts that the couples who have come to me have been stuck on.  They have come to therapy to get the issues resolved, and I expect my conflict resolution map to enable me to guide them through this resolution process.

In my book From Conflict to Resolution I define two roles of a therapist.  Besides being a healer of negative emotional states like depression, anxiety and anger, the therapist is a mediator who guides clients to resolution of their conflicts and a coach who teaches couples how to traverse the territory from conflict to resolution on their own.

Here's some possible ways the conflict resolution might go on the three case examples you list above:

1. Chris realizes that his concern is that he doesn't remember to do the chores. He means to do them, but never quite gets started. Or maybe he has a starter engine problem (at work does he have trouble getting started doing tasks? Has he smoked a lot of pot, which tends to destroy the starter engine?).

Alternatively, Chris could have a habit-change problem. Have you ever tried changing, for instance, your eating habits? Habit-change is hard.

Or the problem could have roots elsewhere, e.g., that he is re-playing attitudes towards chores that developed in his teenage years vis a vis his mom.

Susan meanwhile might think about where she may have learned "nagging" as a response to someone not doing tasks he's said he'd do.

Depending on which of these potential "underlying concerns" are in fact the sources of his "laxness" and her "nagging," Chris and Susan could then each think about what they themselves could do differently.  They would each create better solutions than their current ones of his being lax and her nagging.

2. Elise could explore her feelings of being suffocated, looking back to potential family of origin experiences of feeling suffocated that are exacerbating her current reactions. As a kid did she get the urge to go out with friends as a solution to feeling suffocated at home?

Similarly Joel could explore family of origin experiences in which he felt abandoned.

Both spouses then could look at new ways of understanding themselves and their spouse's behaviors, and also at new ways of responding to their challenge.

Deeper understandings of each other's concerns opens up ability to discover new ideas of more effective solutions.

3. Money habits are particularly resolvable by looking at the origins of his-way and her-way.

The key skill here is to delete negative labeling like "stingy." That involves the skill of listening "with the good ear," that is, to understand in the best possible light each other's underlying concerns.

Both partners have been trying to do what their culture taught them was a right way to handle money.  They came from different cultures, so their ideas of what works best are different.

Then, with this more full understanding, couples can enjoy creating an "our way," a new culture for their generation that takes the best from both and that both can feel proud of.

Many issues can be understood as his-way/her-way issues.  Especially in the early years of marriage spouses need to discuss their his-way/her-way conflicts in order to create together an our-way for each of them.

Comment #6 Whew - hard to follow that up, Submitted by The Marriage Mentor 

Thanks so much for both being engaged in such a collaborative way. You sound like a wonderful pre- or early marital couple, without the baggage of hurts and disappointments that lead to so many conflicts.

… In my work with premarital couples I often quote that 69% of our conflict is perpetual and explain to the couple that they can expect to experience conflict in ways that will surprise them. …

Many couples find a sense of relief when they realize that they do not have to come to a place of all conflict resolved. They offer grace to themselves and the other and slowly move toward the skills Heitler is talking about...

We all have so much that keeps us from properly using collaborative communication skills, we need the freedom to be able to move toward that at a realistic pace. And recognizing that some conflicts will lead to "fighting" in the meantime can be a good thing.

I come from a family that never fought.  Of course we didn't deal well with our emotions or communicate collaboratively either. I'm learning to do some of all of these, for the sake of all of my relationships, including my marriage. My tendency would be to avoid all conflict say as not to be 'fighting'. I've realized that some marriage arguments are healthy and necessary as I move toward understanding my emotions and learning the skills to find win/wins.

Thank you for all your work to help us all have healthier, more fulfilling and authentic marriages.

Comment #7, The 4 minute mile... Submitted by Susan Heitler, Ph.D. 

For many years no one believed that any person would ever be able to run a mile in 4 minutes. Then Roger Banister did it. Once he showed that it was possible, many many athletes have aspired to and accomplished that feat.

I am advocating for changing our standard.  I am encouraging therapists and marriage educators to tell their couples that, with the necessary win-win skill set, all conflicts ARE resolvable. 

I am also advocating for therapists to learn win-win problem-solving. I found found that far too few therapists have had any training in, or even awareness of, the techniques for win-win conflict resolution. That is why I try to transfer this know-how from the mediation world to the therapy world via my books for therapists and for couples, journal articles, the Angry Couple video, my website for couples, and blogs.

It does trouble me that win-win problem-solving, as far as I know, still is not included in the training for therapists, even for couple therapists or for marriage educators. Yet we advertise ourselves as being the go-to folks for helping people to resolve their conflicts. Alas, it's human nature not to know what we don't know.

So I agree with your perspective, Marriage Mentor, that it takes training and practice for couples to learn to transform their marriage arguments into win-win problem-solving. In the meanwhile, "managing" the perpetual conflicts, a la Gottman, and "giving grace to each other" as you say, sure beat either conflict avoidance or fighting.

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Denver psychologist and marriage counselor Susan Heitler, PhD writes on conflict resolution as the essence of psychotherapy, and teaches the skills couples need for harmonious marriage partnership.

Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is the author of many books, including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. She is a graduate of Harvard University and New York University.

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