Relationship Fault Lines

Prevent the hidden conflicts that can trigger a crisis.

Posted Apr 24, 2018

When Rick and Denise split after more than 30 years of marriage, it was in the wake of yet another fight about money.

But it went far deeper than that. During this final conflict, Denise tapped the fault line of their relationship — her conviction, voiced in ways both overt and covert through all their years together, that Rick was inadequate in all ways. She expressed her disappointment in his earning power and the state of their finances to his brother, Ted, with whom Rick had a difficult, somewhat competitive relationship. When Ted called Rick asking if they needed financial help, Rick felt humiliated and betrayed, and exploded with anger at Denise. Their marriage ended in an emotional earthquake, a tumultuous day of screaming what had been hinted and whispered for decades.

Like earthquake fault lines, relationship fault lines lie submerged in deep, largely unexpressed feelings of anger, resentment, disappointment, distrust, and disillusionment. As a marriage and family therapist, I’ve seen many relationships in jeopardy, not from constant fighting, but from the conflicts that simmer under the surface — the words left unspoken, the disagreements not discussed. Then a stressor will bring that fault line to the surface, sometimes with disastrous results.

How can you prevent relationship-threatening fault lines from cracking open?

1. Don’t let conflicts go underground.

Take the risk of discussing your feelings in real time. To be sure, this isn’t always easy: You may fear telling your spouse how you feel for a variety of reasons, such as not wanting to hurt his or her feelings or risk their wrath. Or you may hesitate because you feel that this particular conflict has no easy solution — or little chance of resolution at all. If these feelings or others are keeping you from addressing an issue, you might choose to try it in the presence of a marriage counselor, who can help to keep the discussion productive. Or you may choose to keep your discussion between the two of you, but try it when you have ample time and privacy.

“I kept in all kinds of anger about the way my husband’s family treated me,” a client named Alisa told me not long ago. “It was really coming between us. Finally, I told him that I needed time alone with him on a Saturday night, instead of going out with our friends. We made a nice dinner together, and I started talking, telling him how I felt when his father and his brother said mean things to me about my trouble conceiving and my dedication to my career. I told him that I felt angry about their remarks, which I consider mean and inappropriate. I have been hurt, too, that Mark doesn't defend me when they start in, even though I know he hates scenes and also has his own issues with the men in his family. We talked for hours, and even though there is no easy, instant answer, we came away feeling that this is a problem we will handle together.”

2. Approach your differences in a loving rather than hostile way.

It’s easy to lose one’s temper when emotions run hot. But hostility can drive a conflict underground, keeping it unresolved and simmering. Approaching a difficult topic with love and openness can keep the conversation civil and the prospect of compromise and mutual understanding more possible.

Years back, Rick might have said to Denise: “I feel that I’m disappointing you, and that hurts. It makes me feel frustrated and sad. I want to be a good husband. What would you like to be different in our relationship? What can I do? What can we do together to make things better?”

It’s important, when dealing with painful differences, to focus on what you’re willing and able to do to help resolve a conflict, instead of focusing on your partner's shortcomings or faults. You only have power over your own ability to cope and to change. Expressing a willingness to do whatever you can to resolve your conflict can make a major difference.

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3. Be aware of each other’s vulnerabilities and be gentle with criticisms.

This means no ultimatums. No global statements, like “You always…” or “You never…” No blaming, as in “You make me so angry,” but reporting of feelings such as “I get angry when….” This can make a significant difference in your ability to work together to resolve conflicts in real time. 

Agree to disagree on some matters. Not every conflict can be neatly resolved. Rather than letting it slip underground, talk openly about your differences of opinion and preference and find ways to tolerate these.

“When we both made the decision to learn to tolerate and accept some of the habits and beliefs that irritated and disappointed us about each other, our relationship improved so much,” Justin, a longtime couples counseling client told me not long ago. “Megan and I are very different people. That’s okay. We can make this work because, above all, we truly love each other.”

4. Let go of the expectation of perfection.

Forgive yourself and your partner for not being perfect and for disagreeing in ways both major and minor. Emphasize what does work, and what you value in your relationship. Let your spouse know that you appreciate his or her efforts to do the same. And live, day by day, in gratitude for the life you’re sharing, however imperfect it may be.

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