Mind Matters - November 2006
Written by Ron Sterling, M.D. and Published in Northwest Prime Time Magazine

Partner Conflict, Part 2
by Ron Sterling, M.D. -- November 2006

    Dear Dr. Ron:

      I read your last article, Partner Conflict. It was a little too short for me. Could you write more about what are typical conflicts and not-so-typical conflicts in a marriage? What are the signs that might point to a situation where there is very little hope of keeping the marriage together? Signed: Worried About my Marriage.

    Dear Worried:

      Thank you for writing! I welcome the opportunity to write more about partner conflict. As I noted in my last column, partner conflict is a complex subject and difficult to summarize in a short column, but I think I can point out a few things that will be helpful.

      In a large, 2002 Oklahoma survey, respondents who were divorced said that the two main reasons for divorce were (1) lack of commitment (85%), and (2) too much conflict and arguing (61%). Partner conflict can come from many sources, including disagreements about everything from the trivial to the significant. Each partner in a relationship has different personality styles, values, ideas, fantasies, time-structuring, opinions, likes and dislikes. Even very happy partners experience a large amount of differences and potential conflicts.

      Some partners just "luck" into a mostly happy relationship because they just happen to have similar styles for resolving conflicts. Others have to work very hard at resolving conflicts because of their different styles. Some avoid arguments at all costs, some fight a lot, and some are able to find some solution other than raising their voices and can negotiate and come to an agreement. Partners tend to run into trouble when their conflict-resolution styles are different -- for instance, one partner desires to talk out a conflict while the other withdraws to some other activity. I am sure you may know people who never have a deep conversation about their differences, but they are happy and satisfied with their marriage.

      One of the major myths that Dr. Gottman addresses is "perpetual conflicts in a marriage will doom the marriage to divorce." His extensive studies of happy marriages show that you don't have to resolve your major marital conflicts for your marriage to work. However, there are specific, successful techniques that happy couples utilize for dealing with perpetual, unresolvable conflicts. In addition, Dr. Gottman has discovered specific techniques for resolving solvable conflicts.

      The keys to working toward healthier conflict resolution skills are (1) deciding whether the conflict is perpetual or solvable, (2) determining if, as a couple, you are "gridlocked," (3) establishing the foundation required for all successful conflict resolution -- "communicating basic acceptance of your partner's personality", and (4) solving your solvable conflicts. The techniques that go into solving your solvable conflicts are too complex to address in this short column.

      At the heart of Gottman's program for helping people obtain happier marriages is the principal that happy marriages are based on deep friendship, not on styles of communication. Conflict resolution techniques will not necessarily do much for partners who do not have a friendship. Friendship comes from some other place. According to Gottman, the seven principles for making a marriage work are (1) enhance your love map (Gottman's way of saying "increase your knowledge of your partner, including their history"), (2) nurture your fondness and admiration, (3) turn toward each other instead of away, (4) let your partner influence you, (5) solve your solvable problems, (6) overcome gridlock, and (7) create shared meaning.

      Again, I highly recommend reading Dr. Gottman's book "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work." It will give you the detailed information you need to resolve some of your worries about your marriage and make more informed decisions. I hope this helps. -- Best wishes, Dr. Ron.

        Author Bio:

        Ron Sterling, M.D. is a 64 year-old General and Geriatric Psychiatrist with a private practice in Seattle. He invites you to e-mail him at with any questions about mental wellness or emotional, relationship, or aging concerns. He is the only person who reads e-mail sent to Dr. Ron. Please be assured that your questions and identities are completely confidential and protected. For more information about Dr. Ron and for resources related to senior mental health, please go to SeniorMentalHealth.org. The content offered through Mind Matters is for information only and is not intended for medical, psychiatric, or psychological diagnosis or treatment. Never disregard professional advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read in this column. Read our Disclaimer. If you wish to understand more about Dr. Sterling's potential biases in health care advocacy, please check his Conflicts of Interest Disclosure Statement

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