Marriage Problems

The Four Stages of Marital Conflict


Understand the four stages of marital conflict and save your marriage relationship.

According to authors Tim and Joy Downs in their book, The Seven Conflicts, couples who never learn how to effectively manage their conflicts begin a series of stages in their relationship that can ultimately destroy it.

What is marital conflict?

Marital conflict is not just a difference of opinion.  Rather, it is a series of events that have been poorly handled so as to deeply damage the marriage relationship.  Marriage issues have festered to the point that stubbornness, pride, anger, hurt and bitterness prevent effective marriage communication.

The root of almost all serious marital discord is selfishness on the part of one or both parties.  Saving a marriage means rejecting selfishness, giving up pride, forgiving hurt and setting aside bitterness; these steps grow more difficult, so it’s best to avoid the downward spiral of marital conflict.

The best approach to making marriage work is to prevent marital conflict.  Preparing for marriage is aided by pre-marital counseling.  If this doesn’t take place, then marriage relationship counseling soon after the wedding can give couples basic marital conflict resolution strategies that can be used before marriage problems get out of hand.

Marriage is a relationship where trust is built over time as committed couples set aside their own interests for the good of their partner and develop skills for keeping the relationship positive and open.

What causes marital conflict?

As stated above, selfishness is the main cause of marriage conflicts.  Another way of saying this is that marital issues occur when one party insists upon having his or her way.  While everyone has personal preferences, demanding that one’s self interest prevails is a choice that always affects the marriage.  Can any partnership succeed when one party gets his or her way all the time?  Of course not.

If the marriage relationship is to succeed, then giving up self interest is something couples need to get used to.  Eventually, sacrifice becomes a joy, not a chore.

But the answer is not to always give in and never have your way.  The marriage relationship grows stronger as couples lovingly share and discuss their interests, always showing a willingness to sacrifice, but honestly working together to jointly own the best solution for the marriage.

How marital conflict affects marriage relationships

When husbands and wives are unable to navigate their disagreements, they fall into fairly predictable patterns of behavior, as suggested by the four stages of marital conflict.  It’s important to recognize that all of these stages are dysfunctional.  The stage of negotiating and compromising can appear to be positive, but it will fall apart without commitment and a mature understanding of the difficulties and distractions that must be overcome.

When marriage communication breaks down, feelings are hurt, emotions run high, and solutions seem out of reach.  When marital conflict and children live in the same home, the damage is multiplied.

Four stages of marital conflict that increase marital discord

1. Have It Your Way.

Couples who are newly married and haven’t learned how to successfully resolve their differences tend to try to settle things by avoiding confrontation. They give in to each other without ever discussing the heart of the problem. If you find yourself giving in whenever you have an argument with your husband, eventually you will find that you are tired of this pattern and will begin shifting your attitude toward the next stage.

2. Have It My Way.

After couples have exhausted themselves by ignoring their own needs, they often turn the opposite way and begin demanding that their needs are now met. A wife who has kept her opinions to herself may suddenly realize that this has contributed to her misery and may start voicing her thoughts and attitudes at every opportunity. But unfortunately, this stage doesn’t work either as husband and wife begin butting heads.

3. Have It Our Way.

The third phase involves compromising and negotiating with each other. At first, the couple may be enthusiastic at their newfound communication style, but eventually the eagerness fades. About this time in a marriage, couples are facing more time demands and stresses from their parenting responsibilities, financial concerns and hectic schedules. Between an ineffective conflict resolution style and the growing pressures of life, couples may start to doubt their compatibility during this stage.

4. Have It Any Way You Want.

This stage marks a sense of resignation. Couples in this stage are exhausted over the unending conflicts and might even feel hopeless that all the unresolved issues will ever be worked out.  If you find yourself in this stage, you need expert  marriage guidance.

Effective Marital Communication

Marriages don’t have to end up this way because of conflict. With effective communication and conflict resolution skills, couples can work through their problems, rather than avoiding or forcing the issues. If you recognize any of these negative stages in your own marriage, start learning better ways to communicate with your husband. If you’re unsure of where to start, check out a few books at the library, read articles online or talk with successful couples you know. If conflict continues to go unresolved, consider visiting a marriage therapist to help teach you effective strategies.

Some of this article is based on the book The Seven Conflicts by Tim and Joy Downs.

© 2006 iMom. All rights reserved.


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  • Maximus_Manimal

    I think you have a few interesting things to say, but I also think you’ve barely managed to scratch the surface of the topic. I am on the other side of the article you’ve posted here, a very frustrated father and husband who feels he cannot express his feelings openly without significant reprisal and putting the future of the marriage at risk. I have been bottling up issue after issue for years and have grown so emotionally distant that it now seems an unrealistic and daunting task to try to connect again.

    The times I try to reach out or comment on behavior that is bothersome are either met with complete apathy or a wall of emotion that shuts the entire conversation down.

    I feel trapped in this relationship with no positive way forward (a different article on this site “Why men feel trapped” is what brought me here, and likewise barely scratched the surface). I can honestly say, that if I had it to do over again I would never have gotten married (and would not have the two children I have now). We go through the daily grind with nothing to say to one another until bedtime.

    I could go on for pages, but no one wants to hear me rant. Suffice it to say that, if you’re interested, there is a wealth of material in this idea that remains unexplored.

  • Name

    So many things in this article ring true for me. I found this on the web as I was searching for something to justify how angry I felt rather than communicate this frustration to my husband.

    I know the key changing my marriage is letting him understand my needs but he is so defensive however careful I am about the language I use and the time I discuss it. We are trapped in a cycle where has learnt that if he opposes what I ask for strongly enough I will back down and let him have his way beacuse I love him.

    This behavior has built up a huge ball of resentment inside me whilst conditioning him to respond in a negative way to my requests rather than openly discussing them. Now I’ve reached a point where I’m no longer willing to keep surpressing my needs he seems unable to talk an issue through without being judgmental or critical.
    I still love him. I know he is unhappy and needs help to be the man I fell in love with again but it becomes harder to keep going every day. I also need his support and respect to be true to myself in return.
    Each time we have a rocky patch like this the emphasis is on the need for me to change. He won’t consider joint counselling and despite some steps forward things keep slipping back. I don’t want to loose him but at the same time I can’t get him to open up to me calmly.