Getting married takes a lot of preparation! Some of this preparation is fun and exciting, and some of it is more foundational to the relationship. In our last blog, we discussed the importance of acquiring and developing relational skills – particularly communication and conflict resolution – for a happy, healthy marriage, as well as 7 reasons people fail to communicate or resolve conflict. In this blog, we will examine some motivations for and benefits of learning and utilizing these skills.
There are a multitude of reasons why we should aim to communicate and resolve conflict well. Let’s take a look at some of these various reasons in three categories: the physical, the psychological, and the spiritual.
1. It can decrease our stress level.
When we don’t communicate and resolve conflicts, we will experience a higher level of stress in our lives. Negative feelings, negative reactions, hurt and resentment build up and accumulate. If they are not expressed, the experience of holding them back can produce stress in our lives.
Furthermore, this accumulation of negative emotions adversely affects our relationships, and these distressed relationships in turn add to our stress level. If you have unresolved conflict with your spouse in the morning, you have a nagging awareness that things are not right and need to be taken care of for the rest of the day. You know at the end of the day that you must go home and encounter your spouse, whether you talk about the conflict or not. Trying to function well at work while having this unresolved conflict also increases our stress.
Stress adversely affects our health in various ways, including wear and tear on our bodies, cardiovascular effects, and digestive problems. Dr. Amit Sood, a medical doctor at the Mayo Clinic, says that stress worsens most medical conditions. In The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living (2013), he mentions that one of the primary buffers against stress is cultivating and nurturing our social support network, including our spouse, family, and close friends. It involves caring for our relationships! And how do we cultivate and nurture those relationships? Dr. Sood states, “Sharing what you’re feeling dilutes your fears, takes a burden off you and invites useful ideas. Suppressed fears often bubble up as anger and violence. The less need you have to suppress your thoughts and emotions, the more authentic you’ll be and the better you’ll feel.” Sharing what you are feeling is a primary part of communication and is part of conflict resolution!
2. It can help us avoid depression.
Depression can result from not communicating or resolving conflict. When we avoid sharing our feelings, and/or we have chronic unresolved conflict, we can feel stuck, alone, misunderstood, unknown, unimportant, insignificant, and not cared for.
Dr. Les Greenberg and Dr. Jeanne Watson in Emotion-Focused Therapy for Depression (2006) write about the consequences of avoiding and disowning our feelings. They discuss how an avoidance of core emotion is one significant contributing factor to depression. When we avoid, fear, disown, downplay, and not share or work through our emotions, depression can be a common result. In other words, when we do not communicate our feelings or work through conflict, we can frequently suffer depression.
It is important to note that depression is not only experienced psychologically, but also physically. Depression has implications for quality of sleep, including issues such as fatigue, insomnia, oversleeping, and restlessness. Depression also has implications for eating and drinking issues, such as weight gain, weight loss, loss of appetite, eating unhealthy, and alcohol abuse. One way to address these physical results of depression is to make sure that we are communicating and sufficiently working through any unresolved conflict.
1. It can increase our emotional connection.
The most important reason to communicate and resolve conflict is to feel more connected – with ourselves as well as with others. When we are able to express ourselves and communicate our thoughts, feelings, needs, and wants, we have a better sense of self, of who we are. This can facilitate self-compassion, self-motivation, and self-esteem.
When we are able to share our thoughts, feelings, needs, and wants, it also positively impacts our emotional connection with others. When we are able to share more deeply with others, we feel an emotional safety; it is safe for us to be vulnerable with them, to let them in on who we really are, what we are thinking and what we are feeling. As a pleasant result, we feel closer to them, more emotionally connected to them, more drawn to them, and they tend to reciprocate and feel that way towards us as well.
When we can’t share ourselves with others, we sense a lack of emotional safety, emotional connection, and a lack of understanding. That means that it is not safe to really be ourselves or to be vulnerable with what we are truly thinking or feeling. As a result, we are primed to find emotional safety and connection elsewhere.
This is particularly true for marital relationships. When we can’t or don’t share emotional or intimate issues or struggles with our spouse, we become vulnerable to finding that opportunity for emotional connection and understanding with someone else, such as a friend or co-worker. When that transpires, it increases the risk that infidelity can occur. We feel safer and more understood with that person than with our spouse, and so our emotional connection and attachment to them grows stronger than the relationship that we have with our spouse. Infidelity gradually becomes a possible outcome.
2. It can deepen our relationships.
Associated with that emotional connection is that there will be a deepening of the relationship. We can have a relationship without communication or conflict resolution, and it might be safe and polite, but it will also be superficial. We will be able to talk about the weather and other pleasantries, but not about our deeper issues and problems. The relationship will be more like a relationship between roommates.
Unfortunately, some marriage relationships are like that. We cannot have intimacy in our relationships without communication and conflict resolution! Working through a conflict or difficulty together, which requires communication and conflict resolution, is one of the primary ways that relationships deepen and become more connected. There is a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when we work through a difficulty. When we work through a marital difficulty with our spouse, that sense is shared with them and bonds us together. The relationship deepens.
3. It helps us feel heard, understood and considered.
When we successfully communicate and resolve conflict, we feel more heard, understood, and considered by the other. As a result, we feel important to them and, as discussed previously, more connected to them. Our relationship feels emotionally safer, and so we can be more vulnerable.
When we know that we can safely go into the deepest, darkest parts of ourselves, and share that with another, we can encounter great freedom. This experience helps to remove shame, guilt, doubt, and fear. Perhaps one reason God that created marriage was for us to be able to have a more tangible experience of how He feels about us through our experience of acceptance with our spouse.
When we can share emotions and resolve conflict with another, a powerful positive cycle begins to take shape. As we share and resolve conflict, we feel heard, understood, and more drawn to the other. As we feel more heard, understood, and drawn to the other, the more we will communicate and resolve conflict!
It is a tremendous experience to be able to be completely known (the good, bad and the ugly), and to still be accepted, cared for, listened to, and understood! However, in order for us to be able to have that experience, we need to be willing to be vulnerable and share, giving the other person the opportunity to respond to us. Even though at times we may find it difficult or uncomfortable, there is a positive payoff for communicating ourselves.
4. It will prevent resentment and separation.
Failing to communicate well or resolve conflict well creates fertile soil in which resentment can grow and separation can creep into the relationship.
For example, we get hurt about something, but we don’t say anything because we don’t want to rock the boat or make a big deal about it. We stuff or ignore our hurt feelings, but they actually are still there. When something similar happens, we have a heightened reaction because of our suppressed feelings. If it happens repeatedly, and if we still don’t address it, then we begin to develop a sensitivity to that situation. Every time that situation or something similar occurs and we don’t say something, it is like we are adding one more brick to a wall of hurt and resentment. As the wall grows, we feel less and less close, safe, or connected. As the wall grows, so does resentment. As the wall grows, so does our sensitivity to that situation, and we become reactionary and “trigger happy,” now seeing that situation everywhere we look! The bigger the wall becomes, the harder it is to take it down. Chronic resentment is extremely difficult to dismantle.
I believe it is important to mention one caveat here. When we are in a safe, non-abusive relationship, we can safely take the risk, open up, and be vulnerable, even though it might be uncomfortable or difficult. However, there are some relationships that are not safe, emotionally and/or physically. If you find yourself in such a relationship, where being emotionally vulnerable would put you at risk, it would be wise to first seek outside help and resources to ensure your safety. In that situation, safety must come before communication and conflict resolution.
We have examined some physical and psychological benefits to why we should communicate and resolve conflict. In our next blog, we will look at some spiritual reasons why we should communicate and resolve conflict.
Willa Williams is a licensed marriage and family therapist. She works at the Biola Counseling Center as a therapist and at the Biola Center for Marriage and Relationships as a consulting therapist. She has a Master of Arts in Religion from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL) and a Master of Arts in Counseling in Psychology from Trinity International University (Deerfield, IL). She is Level 3 Trained in the Gottman Method of Couples Therapy. Before coming to Biola, she served overseas at the Spanish Bible Institute in Barcelona, Spain, where she taught a class on counseling skills for pastors and served as the staff therapist for the students. She has been married for more than 30 years and has two teenage children. She has a passion for healthy relationships and enjoys working with couples as well as individuals. She appreciates the immense impact that healthy marriages and relationships have on couples as well as future generations.