When we think about getting married, many fun and exciting things come to mind – the proposal, the ring, picking out the dress, the venue, the bridal party, etc. While those things definitely are enjoyable, there are also other types of preparation that need to be done as well – things that may not be as fun and exciting, but actually are much more important for the long haul. We need to prepare ourselves to develop a healthy relationship, acquiring the relationship skills needed to have a healthy marriage.
Many of us are not very proficient in these relationship skills. Perhaps they have never been modeled for us, or we have not been exposed to them much. Some of us are not naturally gifted in these areas. While that may be true, it does not mean that we are permanently at a disadvantage. These relationship skills can be learned, just like riding a bike! With practice and repetition, we can become proficient in their use.
The two most important skills necessary to create a successful, enriching marriage are communication and conflict resolution. These skills are interrelated and interconnected with each other. Communication is connecting with another person through the sharing of feelings, thoughts, wants and needs. It is the process by which we invite another person into our world and our experience; it is how we are known. Conflict resolution utilizes communication in order to help resolve the inevitable misunderstandings and disruptions in our connections with others so that our relationships can deepen and can be more securely, emotionally connected.
In this multi-part blog series, we will look at three things about communication and conflict resolution:
1) why we don’t use these skills,
2) why we should, and
3) how we can.
Why We Fail to Communicate/Resolve Conflict
In working with couples, I have encountered various reasons why people don’t communicate or work to resolve conflicts. Let’s explore a few:
1. “I don’t know how to communicate or resolve conflict.”
Oftentimes, we just don’t know how to open up and/or express ourselves. Communicating and resolving conflict were not done well in our families growing up. Because these skills were never modeled for us, we don’t have any idea of how to do them. We may be capable of using these skills, but we do not know how to get started or what it looks like to put them into practice.
2. “I don’t even know what I am feeling.”
Related to not knowing how is that we may not even know what we are feeling. If communicating and resolving conflict were never done in our families growing up, then we may never have developed an awareness of our feelings because we never really paid any attention to them. Maybe we were discouraged from feeling or expressing them, or maybe we were even punished for doing so. Growing up did you ever hear the expression “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!”? Children are not really encouraged to explore, experience, or express their feelings when they hear that.
This can also occur if we have an avoidant attachment style, where we avoid our feelings, or we avoid experiencing them, because they are just too uncomfortable. Because of that, we suppress them, push them down, stuff them, ignore them, and we can shut down emotionally. With enough time and practice doing this, we eventually don’t even know what our feelings are anymore – we just have no idea what we are feeling.
3. “It’s just too scary to share!”
Sometimes we don’t want to share or talk about conflict because it is just too scary to open up and be vulnerable. We might think we will be seen as weak if we do, or maybe we think that others will take advantage of us if we express our feelings.
When we haven’t learned how to handle strong emotions, especially those that may come up during a conflict, we may feel overwhelmed or scared by strong emotions. So, we shut them down, close them off, or ignore them. Or, if we have little practice managing strong emotions and stuff them instead, we may fear losing control. We may have a sense that those feelings are there, buried, and we fear that if we let them come out, they are going to explode and take over. We may fear that we will get lost in them and that the ensuing chaos will never end. Clients have described these overwhelming feelings as continuously pounding ocean waves that never stop.
4. “I shouldn’t share my feelings – I don’t want to offend or make the situation worse!”
Sometimes we are afraid that if we do share what we think or feel, especially during a conflict, we will actually make the situation worse. We surely don’t want to cause more problems, and so we don’t say anything, or we just disregard our feelings.
We also may fear offending the other person. So, we would rather just ignore our feelings than risk offending someone else. We figure that we can just absorb it and it will be ok – “it’s just my issue.” We don’t want to rock the boat, and so we take the path of lowest risk.
5. “I’m not worthy of being heard, or I don’t deserve to be heard.”
Sometimes we don’t feel entitled to what we are feeling, and so we don’t express it. We might think that our spouses’ thoughts or feelings are more important than ours because of our low self-esteem, and so we do not share ours. We might feel, “I’m not as important as you are, and so I do not think that my thoughts should be listened to by you.”
For example, you might have had a horrible day at work, but when you get home and begin to tell your spouse, she has something to share about her day. So, you clam up and do not share your own experiences and feelings, and you stuff them down again.
6. “My feelings are/can be sinful!”
In some Christian circles or homes, strong feelings, especially anger, are seen as sinful. Sometimes the expression of feelings can be seen as selfish or manipulative. As a result, their expression may be discouraged, muffled, shut down, or worse, punished. This happens especially when parents or leaders themselves are not comfortable with their own feelings or their expression. Because they are not comfortable with it, it is hard for them to allow any sort of healthy expression of their feelings or anyone else’s.
7. We are sabotaging our efforts.
Sometimes we try to talk and express ourselves, but the way we attempt to communicate actually makes it harder for the other person to hear us or respond well to us. Dr. John Gottman, a leading couples’ researcher, describes in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work how he has found from his research that there are four things we tend to do in communication that make it hard for us to communicate well. He identifies them as criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (shutting down and being unavailable emotionally and/or physically). When we engage in these behaviors, we make it very difficult for the other person to hear us or respond well to us. We set ourselves up to not be heard or responded well to.
These are some various reasons why maybe we don’t communicate and resolve conflict. Hopefully they are helpful in building some understanding of why it may be so difficult for us to communicate or resolve conflict well. It is often helpful to think through our family of origin concerning how thoughts and feelings were communicated and how conflicts were resolved in order to understand our present difficulties in communication. In our next blog, we will examine some 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.