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The Four Stages of Marital Conflict

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Conflict in marriage is inevitable, but if handled properly, it can also be healthy. Understanding the four stages of marital conflict could help 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?

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.

Here’s 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.

Here are four stages of marital conflict that increase marital discord:

1. Have It Your Way.

Couples who are newly married 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. They begin demanding that their needs are now met. A wife who has kept her opinions to herself may suddenly realize that she is miserable. And then she 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. There are more stresses from parenting responsibilities, finances, 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. Unsure where to start? Download an eBook, read articles online or talk with successful couples you know. Download the Q&U app for conversation starters for couples. 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.


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