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Rob Pascale and Lou Primavera Ph.D.

The Roots of Marital Conflicts

Some problems stem from what we believe about marriage and our spouse

There are countless ways couples can run into problems in their marriage. Many of these should be easy to fix if we could just identify the real source of the problem. Yet, that’s the rub. Determining what to focus on isn’t easy because problems aren’t always what they appear to be. Very often one is linked to or the cause of another problem. A couple may fight about sex because a wife feels she isn’t respected, which inhibits her sexual desire. Additionally, an apparently simple problem can actually be the result of much larger issues. A husband doesn’t take out the trash when asked and that makes his wife angry. Such a problem should be easy to solve. Just take out the trash and the problem is gone.

However, it’s usually not that simple. Emotions are at the heart of virtually all marital problems, even those that appear to have no emotional underpinnings. There might be underlying reasons why he doesn’t take out the trash. Maybe he thinks his wife is too controlling, and not taking out the trash when asked is a way of expressing his independence. She may view his attitude regarding her request as a sign that he doesn’t want to help or support her. Acknowledging the role of emotions is an important first step to improving many relationships. From there, it makes sense that to solve any problem requires that we deal with the emotions that are behind the problem.

So how do we deal with our emotional underpinnings? It would seem that all we have to do is control or change them. The husband should just take out the trash and stop feeling angry or resentful about it, and the wife should stop getting angry when he doesn’t do it immediately. However, that’s not likely to work, because the emotions we experience might have something else beneath them and trying to change them directly won’t get at the heart of the issue.

We tend to think that all of our emotions are linked to a specific situation or event, meaning that how we feel is a direct result of what we’re seeing or hearing.  However, our emotions can be affected by the ideas that we hold in our heads. In other words, our emotions, and the thoughts and behaviors that spring from these emotions, are the product of what we believe. The idea that our belief systems are the triggers of our emotions is a fundamental principle behind Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), developed by psychologist Albert Ellis. Ellis argued that what we believe comes in between what we see or hear, and determine how we react emotionally. It’s not the task of taking out the trash that causes the emotional reaction, but rather what taking out the trash signifies. How we interpret an event causes us to react in a certain way, and our interpretation is determined by our beliefs. According to Dr. Ellis, it’s not the events of the world that cause our emotions, but rather the significance we attach to those events.

In marriage, our beliefs serve as the rules we follow for interacting with our partner. They are the things that we hold to be true about what marriage should be like and how our partner should think and act. They make their presence felt in virtually all aspects of our relationship, and are the basis for our wants, needs, and expectations.

When our wants, needs, or expectations are satisfied, we feel good about our relationship. However, when they’re not met, they become a source of contention. Unmet needs, wants, and expectations are really what make us unhappy in our marriage. It truly doesn’t matter who takes out the trash. However, it does matter what we believe our partner is communicating to us when they don’t.

Some beliefs are perfectly acceptable, but some are not. Acceptable beliefs are rational, and when they are what’s beneath our needs, wants, and expectations, we have a right to have them fulfilled. We have a right to be supported by our partner or treated with affection and respect. However, some beliefs are irrational. It is irrational to believe our partner should love us no matter what we do or how we treat them. Some people do actually believe that—they call it unconditional love.

Some of the problems couples face, especially those that come up over and over again, might stem from irrational beliefs held by one or both partners. Needs, wants and expectations based on irrational beliefs can’t be satisfied, and so they can cause a lot of negative emotions, such as anger or frustration. That’s because we keep waiting to get what we want and it doesn’t happen. These negative emotions also linger and can infect other aspects of a relationship, and arguments that stem from irrational beliefs rarely find their way to solutions.

While we’ll never get rid of all of our irrational beliefs, we can at least identify the ones that are particularly detrimental to our relationship. Once they’re identified, we can fight against their damaging effects by replacing them with more rational beliefs. A husband can realize that the trash really does have to get out, and doing so at the request of his wife is not manipulative, but rather is supportive of her. A wife can acknowledge that if he doesn’t do it immediately, it is not indicative of how he feels about her or their marriage.

Self-reflection and self-monitoring are the key tools for changing irrational beliefs. Only through exploring your own thoughts and asking yourself questions can you gain the insight you need to identify and change irrational beliefs. Think about the problems you’ve faced with your partner and how you have reacted to those situations. Think about the emotions you experienced and try to discover the underlying thoughts and beliefs that triggered those feelings.

Once you’re able to replace an irrational belief with a more rational one, you will find that your emotional reaction will be different. You won’t be as angry, upset, or frustrated, and you won’t be emotionally agitated for days. Instead, you’re likely to feel better about yourself and less disenchanted with your spouse. You’ll also find that, because you’re not as emotionally rattled, you’ll have an easier time communicating with your partner about your issues. So when you find that you’re experiencing overly negative emotions over something your partner has said or done, challenge yourself. Think about why you feel the way you do, what’s really at the heart of why you’re so upset. Then look to make adjustments to the beliefs that are beneath your reaction, and then confront your partner about what really is upsetting you.

We are not saying you can’t become annoyed or that you shouldn’t confront your partner when you’re annoyed. We’re saying that demanding or expecting them to be a certain way can get you into trouble. When we demand something, we are not prepared for not getting what we want and this lack of preparedness can only lead us to feel angry and frustrated.

Of course, there’s no such thing as a cure-all. This approach won’t work on every problem in your marriage. Nevertheless, it can be helpful for many problems and its applicability is wide-ranging. As its greatest benefit, it can reduce the intensity of emotional reactions so arguments are less likely to escalate or get blown out of proportion, and it will be easier to work your way toward solutions because you won’t feel so hostile. This is a critical point, because many marital problems result from how strongly we react to some wrong-doing. When we’re emotionally overcharged, we create an environment of reciprocity, ineffective communication, and residual negative feelings. How well we handle the things we don’t like in our partner often determines the path of our marriage.

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About the Author

Rob Pascale, Ph.D., is a research psychologist. Lou Primavera, Ph.D., is the dean of the School of Health Sciences at Touro Colleges. They are the authors of Making Marriage Work.