Conflict Q&A

Conflict is inevitable but it can't be managed with anger, blame or avoidance.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on August 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Death Throes

My daughter cries all the time because she is miserable in her marriage. For over 10 years she has been pretty much the sole caregiver for her two children--husband always golfing, etc. She had us all fooled into believing she was fine until one day she told her husband she was filing for divorce. He went crazy! They fight all the time now, waking the kids in the middle of the night with their yelling and screaming. What can I do to help my girl?

Too bad your son-in-law was long allowed to lead a privileged life while his wife did the hard family work. Given the anger she feels at the abandonment she experienced as a de facto single mom, no wonder she believes that love is gone forever. But she can fall back in love with the father of her kids--if both of them can learn how to be partners in a real relationship. It's not going to be easy, but each needs to know that marriage requires care and feeding, to be in touch with his/her own needs, feel entitled to speak up for them, and do so in a way that preserves good feelings and even allows them to grow.

Lost Boy

My husband is always depressed. He says he hates himself and that he doesn't have a problem with me yet at the same time he complains about everything I do. I don't cook the right foods, I yell too much, I'm too opinionated. We have been married 17 years. The last 2 and 1/2 have been pure hell. Our constant fighting is tearing the kids and us apart. I am lost and hopeless without my best friend.

Your concern is not misplaced. Depression doesn't just manifest in sadness. It often makes people hostile and irritable. As you have experienced, depression in one partner can wreak havoc on marital and family relationships. In addition to enduring the chaos of your home life, you miss the partner your husband once was--and bear the worry that he might harm himself. Your husband is carrying the burden of a medical illness that can indeed be treated. While drug treatment may well be indicated, your husband can also benefit from Interpersonal Therapy (IPT), one of the most validated treatments for depression. Be sure to see a doctor who has a comprehensive approach to depression and its consequences.

On the Rocks

I uncovered some emails between my wife and another man, who happens to be a relative. They seem to be in love and want each other in an intimate way. She asked me for a divorce prior to my finding this out. I confronted her and she denies any sexual activity. We have two daughters and I am afraid they will be exposed to this. I am not sure how to handle any of this. I love my wife and if nothing physical happened I would probably take her back if she so desired.

The alienation between you and your wife is so extreme it no doubt seems unbridgeable to her. But it may not be too late to rekindle the love you once had. However, that requires actually demonstrating affection, no sign of which animates your message. There's no reason to doubt your wife's declaration of sexual fidelity, but you should be far more concerned about her emotional fidelity, since it's the emotional alienation from you that has undoubtedly made her receptive to affection from others. You need to talk calmly but openly to your wife, let her know that you want to start over as a couple--and search out a program that teaches relationship skills to couples who are in the same predicament you are. Check out

Hot and Cold

I have been married to the most wonderful man for the past seven years. Recently he totally changed. He says it isn't anyone else and he doesn't need anyone. But he seems to show more affection to the dog than to me. I'm trying hard to support him but he is so hot and cold that the mixed messages are torture. He refuses to seek counseling, on his own or as a couple. I am seeing a therapist to help me deal with my fear and feelings of loss over a man and marriage I thought would last forever. I just need to know that he still loves me, wants our future and is willing to work on it. What do I do next? And if one more person tells me to be patient and strong and be there for him I am going to scream.

Don't be patient, be smart. Stop seeking reassurance. Start getting information. Consider several possibilities:

1. Your husband could be lying (about an affair). He wouldn't be the first, although it makes women doubt their own sanity.

2. Your husband may be depressed or anxious. He wouldn't be the first, either, but many guys see getting help as a sign of weakness, which only magnifies their irritability and suffering.

3. Have you tried sitting down and talking calmly to your husband, expressing your genuine concern about him, telling him how his behavior comes across, letting him know how worried you are about him and how terrified it's making you about his well-being and your future? By making it "safe" for your husband to talk, you're likely to get some clues about what's going on.

Drifted Apart

I have been married for 18 years and have two teenage boys. My husband and I have slowly drifted apart and argue about everything constantly. There have never been any major problems between us, we have just lost interest (and love) for each other. We have slept in separate rooms for seven years and have not had sex during that time. Otherwise, our lives are good. We live in a nice house, my husband enjoys his job and I am able to stay at home. We enjoy the company of other couples and activities such as golf for my husband and shopping for me. Though I'm happy with the rest of my life, I miss having a loving relationship. If I were to divorce my husband, it would devastate my children and my life might not really be any better. Working on the relationship I have is out of the question as I truly do not love my husband, and I believe the feeling is mutual. Any suggestions?

You're right about divorce; it probably would devastate the kids, at least for a time, and your life might not be better afterwards. But you're wrong about love. The feeling that love is dead between you and your husband is an illusion. Love is a feeling that ebbs and flows depending on how you and your husband treat each other. If you and he were to learn new ways of interacting and expressing yourselves, the feelings could come flowing back stronger than ever.

I urge you NOT to work on the relationship you have--but to create a new relationship with your husband. Perhaps some night you can walk gently into his room, sit at the foot of his bed and tell him how much you miss a warm loving relationship and you imagine that he does too, that you don't want to live the rest of your life this estranged way, that's it's been a long time but you're willing to explore new ways of being together that you can both enjoy. Ask him what he wants and share with him what you want.

For the record, one way couples lose touch with each other is to put the children at the center of the marriage. What your kids need more is your own happy marriage. Once you start talking, plan a weekend away with your husband.

Excuses, Excuses

I am married to someone who is not entirely ill-meaning but is given to excessive temper. For the first time in my life, I went away for 15 days, leaving my 16-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter with him, because my mother was very sick. When I came back my son was talking of suicide and my daughter looked like a tramp. My daughter has a friend with whom she played throughout my absence. On my return the friend's mom and my spouse were very friendly, which does not truly bother me because he has a history of falling in love with my children's friends' mothers. My spouse lost his father when he was 15 and was brought up by an abusive mother who hit him everyday. I am not sure what to do. I certainly do not feel comfortable living with this man. I also feel that having some sort of a father is better than having no father. Living with him I find myself very depressed, no matter what I do. I have developed a genuine dislike for this man. But he has certain utilities like a paycheck and he drives the children around.

I'm sorry that your husband was abused as a child. Many people were. That is no excuse for bad behavior as an adult.

It might be time to reconsider the utility of a person who in 15 days can make your son talk of suicide and destroy your daughter's appearance and behavior. Also, what is the utility of a person who can make you feel very depressed? Depression is undoubtedly the source of the apathy you display. Depression in a mother is especially harmful to children; it diminishes involvement in and effectiveness at parenting.

And what about the contempt your husband has shown you by openly getting involved with another woman? Your depression may render you so apathetic that you accept it, but it seems to be very disturbing to your children.

You make it sound perfectly normal that your husband has "a history of falling in love with the mothers of your children's friends." It is demeaning and depressing. Everyone knows this isn't the way it's supposed to be.

Whatever "utilities" your husband now provides could continue in the event of separation and divorce. Separation agreements are necessary to spell out parental obligations so that children get the continuing care and support of both parents, which they need.

You have not indicated one even mildly compelling reason why you should continue to live with a man who openly disrespects you, conducts himself in a way so disturbing to your children that they talk of suicide, and whom you don't even like. Please convey to your husband the urgency of seeing a family counselor--at the very least because of your son's suicide threats--and make an appointment for the whole family NOW!! You need to be together in one room with a professional who makes it safe for each person to talk.