Price: How conflict can save your marriage

Ron Price
Special to The Daily times

I’ve been coaching couples in marital distress since 2001. At the first meeting, I typically ask them to list two or three problems they are experiencing for which they have come to me fo

r help. Or, rather than focusing on the problems, I might ask them to list two or three ways their marriage could be better. I’m thinking of revising my approach and asking “other than communication problems, what are two or three areas of your marriage that are not working well for you right now?” This change would be based on the reality that 99.99 percent of couples who come to me for help cite poor communication as one of their major problems.

Having worked with numerous couples over the years, I am convinced that the problem is rarely, if ever,  an inability to communicate. They were once able to communicate well enough to fall in love and decide to get married. So poor communication is typically a result of other problems that must be addressed. Ironically, however, good communication skills are necessary to discuss and resolve the problems that caused the poor communication in the first place.

To that end, I am pleased to introduce you to Susie Miller, a woman I recently met and greatly admire. She is an author, coach and speaker. While she often works with professionals in the business environment, Susie is also dedicated to helping couples create better personal and professional relationships in 30 days or less.

Susie has been featured in Forbes, Fox News, Entrepreneur, The Good Men Project, SUCCESS media and more. She is the bestselling author of "Listen, Learn, Love: How to Dramatically Improve Your Relationships in 30 Days or Less!" Susie has been married to John for 32 years, and they have three adult children. I think you’ll enjoy and appreciate her words of wisdom that she shares with us today.

Learning the dance of healthy conflict

Raise your hand if you avoid conflict! We grew up being told, "If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all." We watched sitcoms and dramas where the conflict was resolved in 30 to 60 minutes, and we cut our teeth on Disney’s animated fairy tales, ending in, “And they lived happily ever after.”

Susie Miller

No wonder we avoid conflict.

I got married thinking we would love and enjoy each other forever, and then reality hit. For me, waking up to real married life meant dealing with socks on the floor, insensitive comments and work taking over our lives. My husband didn’t read my mind, and his idiosyncrasies I thought were cute became rather annoying. We were not living happily ever after. Not by a long shot. But they don’t tell you about reality during ring shopping and wedding planning.  After the "I dos" real life hits and developing a strong and loving relationship is hard work.

Every couple has issues, struggles and conflicts. How we handle them can make all the difference in the health of our marriage relationship. In difficult or tense moments, we fear a less than positive outcome, so we bite our tongue, swallow our words and avoid addressing the issue entirely. While these tactics may offer some momentary calm, repeatedly avoiding conflict yields a giant mound of hurt feelings and misunderstandings swept under the carpet. We can pretend the mound doesn’t exist, but eventually we are tripping over it or avoiding interactions with our spouse all together.

Many couples falsely assume that "we never fight" is a sign of a strong marriage. In fact, avoiding conflict through distance, keeping the peace and ignoring our feelings erodes the foundation of our marriage relationship. The ability to discuss tough issues and reconcile differences helps us become more loving and connected in our marriages.

In moments of conflict, we have a choice that sets in motion a dance we will do for years to come. When a couple learns and uses the "dance of healthy conflict," rather than the "dance of avoidance," they actually improve their relationship and increase their odds of staying married long term.

The dance of healthy conflict sounds a bit odd — not nearly as sexy as the tango, as fun as the Charleston or as romantic as a waltz — but it’s an essential dance for couples. Healthy conflict enables couples to share their struggles, complaints, disappointments and hurts in a way that creates greater understanding and ultimately closeness.  Of course, this may not happen instantly, but it is an inevitable byproduct.

Dancing is the perfect analogy because dancing takes two people learning together, making mistakes together, trying again, being patient and encouraging and persevering together to master a dance. Relationships and healthy conflict are similar, as they too require skill, practice, patience, perseverance and understanding.

The first and most important step in the dance of healthy conflict is to develop good communication skills, which are essential in every relationship and foundational for a good marriage. Communication skills training should be a prerequisite for all couples, or at least a bonus gift when buying a ring.

Three tips for developing good communication skills are:

  • Pause and pay attention
  • Practice reflective listening
  • Use "I feel" statements rather than "you did/didn’t" statements when expressing your thoughts and feelings.

While I teach these skills in depth at my communication workshops, here are a few ways to start using them now.

When your spouse is sharing their thoughts and feelings, rather than thinking about your response or defensive rebuttal, pause and pay attention to what they are communicating both verbally and nonverbally. Then practice reflective listening by repeating what you heard them saying and asking if you understood them correctly. If they say yes, then move forward with your response. If they say no,  ask them to share again. Repeat this process until they feel heard and understood.

Finally, use "I feel" statements rather than "you did/didn’t" statements when expressing your thoughts and feelings. We tend to do the opposite when we are hurt or disappointed, attacking and blaming instead of sharing.  "I feel hurt when you are checking your phone during dinner" is far more effective than, "You are always on your phone when we are together."
We don’t begin our marriages thinking this wonderful person — the love of our life — will ever annoy, disappoint or infuriate us.  But it happens to every couple if they are honest.  We must chose to do the dance of healthy conflict  to have a strong marriage, so we can not only address the difficulties, but grow closer to our spouse through the process. So the next time conflict arises, take your spouse’s hand and ask "Shall we dance?" and continue perfecting your steps together.

Hear more from Susie Miller

OK, I’m back and in total agreement with the advice you just received. I so pleased that Susie has agreed to be my guest on "TWOgether as ONE" at 6 p.m. Monday on KLJH 107.1FM. She’ll be sharing more helpful guidance on how to improve the overall health and wellness of your marriage. I hope you can join us then.

Ron Price

Ron Price is the co-founder and executive director of the Four Corners Coalition for Marriage & Family, a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening and equipping marriages and families in the Four Corners area. He can be reached at 505-327-7870.