The Stages of Marital Conflict
written by Dr. Ken Newberger
Estero, Florida 33928
This article describes the escalating stages of marital conflict that ends in divorce. It is not, however, the only path. Some marriages simply grow cold. Rather turn against each othe and fight, these spouses turn away and avoid each other. Surprisingly, there is research to indicate that these withdrawn and "quieter" couples divorce sooner than spouses who engage and fight with each other.
The following description is a slow motion look at the development of the more argumentative pattern. This path is not always predictable or sequential. For couples who have already experienced many of these stages on multiple occasions, the escalation of conflict can occur in a matter of seconds. Watch this brief video clip from the movie, "The Details," to see it. Be warned, the language gets rough. The "F" word is used repeatedly. If this will offend you, skip the excerpt. To watch it, click here.
What follows are the stages of marital conflict. To stem the progression of conflict to the point of divorce, marriage counseling or other reconciliatory processes may be needed.
Stage 1 of Marital Conflict: An Uncomfortable Feeling
Something doesn't feel right with your spouse. You may not be able to put your finger on it but you feel ill at ease.
Stage 2 of Marital Conflict: A Problem Emerges
An identifiable problem has emerged and dealing with it is the focus. Each partner is civil and respectful toward his/her mate as they share their perspectives. Solutions are proposed and, in most instances, issues are resolved.
Stage 3 of Marital Conflict: Disagreements Increase
If the issue is not resolved, the conversation changes from what is the best solution to a debate of who is right and who is wrong. Dissatisfaction and hurt feelings mount because the attempt to have your needs met is undermined by your spouse. This includes the need of feeling more secure in the relationship. If each of you makes an effort to see the other's point of view, the conversation will be constructive. On the other hand, if the matter is not resolved, the conversation can deteriorate and put a strain on the relationship.
Stage 4 of Marital Conflict: Arguments Increase
Positive feelings wane. Other issues may emerge or re-emerge and make matters worse. The two of you begin to communicate less to each other and more about each other with those who sympathize with you (i.e. other family members or friends). This will likely increase the polarization both of you are feeling. And while there may not be an intent to hurt your spouse, this may still be the outcome. Since the immediate goal is to win the argument, there is less concern about how this impacts the other. As one partner seeks to win, the other feels disrespected and unloved. One wife explained her experience this way... "and when sex didn't work, we argued about sex, and then we argued about our arguments, and then we began to layer resentment on top of resentment."
Stage 5 of Marital Conflict: Arguments Become Personal Attacks
You now feel alienated from one another as an emotional barrier goes up. Original issues become secondary. At this stage, the problem is no longer identified as "communication" or some other issue. Your partner is the problem. An adversarial "me versus you" mentality sets in. Negative emotions take root. Selective perception fuels negative stereotyping. Your spouse can more easily be "written-off" as _____ (fill in the blank). You view the other through an increasingly distorted filter of suspicion, exaggeration, and misperception.
You justify your own less than ideal behavior as reactions to your partner or circumstances. By contrast, your partner's actions are attributed to his or her internal deficiencies, such as character, competency, or spirituality. Admission of having exercised poor judgment or having made a mistake becomes increasingly unlikely. Such an acknowledgment in this charged environment would likely open oneself to embarrassment, further criticism, and reprisal. Communication breaks down as you verbally attack each other.
if you are at this stage of conflict in your marriage. Now is the time to get help from a skilled couples or marriage counselor, family therapist, pastoral counselor, or related specialist who can help you repair and rebuild your marriage. Do not put this off. Researchers have found that by this stage, direct head-to-head confrontations are counter-productive. That is why a third party professional is needed. To learn about my approach, go to www.MarriageCounselingAlt.com/couples.htm.
Stage 6 of Marital Conflict: My "Face" to Save
The term "face" refers to how a person is viewed by others. As long as you are viewed as respectable and trustworthy, all is well. But when one's image is seriously challenged, especially by your husband or wife, expect the conflict to escalate even further. It is like one spouse saying to the other, "I have come to know you better than anyone else on the face of the earth and I can't stand you!"
To have one's image challenged is to be attacked on a very personal level. The attacker seeks to "unmask" the other spouse's true (and despicable) identity. With this new perspective, words or actions that originally were perceived in a positive light are now viewed as part of a larger, deceitful strategy. False motives are attributed throughout. The conflict is no longer understood in terms of shades of gray. It is perceived in terms of black and white and a battle of good versus evil.
To "save face" against such an attack on one's identity, partners will respond with an equally ferocious assault of their own. A torrent of negative descriptions will be unleashed, attempting to undercut and discredit their mate. They will label the other as unreasonable, immoral, untrustworthy, mentally unbalanced, and the like. This conclusion then justifies almost any action against their partner, exacerbating the cycle of conflict to dangerous levels.
Stage 7 of Marital Conflict: The Road to Divorce
Couples become locked in an all-or-nothing battle. The relationship has become unbearable. The perceived solution is either to drive your husband or wife out of the home or leave. Or, the conflict may be so intractable and irrational that one or both of you would rather suffer loss than let the other "win." As one individual soberly described it, "together into the abyss they go." Tragically, if there are children involved, you take them with you causing them emotional damage that can last a lifetime.
Stage 8 of Marital Conflict: After the Divorce
Divorce does not mean that the relationship is over. If children are involved, you will be interacting with your ex on a regular basis for years to come. Issues relating to co-parenting may become the new battlefield.
Two intensifying processes that take place over time. It begins with (1) an increasing frustration over some issue that is not being resolve, including not having one's needs met. As a result, (2) there is an increasingly negative perception of your spouse. Your spouse becomes the problem.
There comes a time when trying to resolve these unresolved issues on your own not only becomes pointless, but counter-productive. Oftentimes, the things you are fighting about don't even touch the actual cause for the tension. The only way to eliminate such deep issues is through the help of a third party peacemaker who has the tools and skills to identify and resolve them.
In all candor, not all marriage counselors, family therapists, pastoral counselors, etc. know how to do this. To read about the kind of approach that is needed, click approach. To read about the kind of process that is needed, click process.
If you are experiencing significant conflict in your marriage time is probably not on your side. Don't wait to get help. Given the escalating stages of conflict, the sooner you begin working on resolving the real problems in your marriage the better!
Dr. Ken Newberger
Ph.D., Conflict Analysis and Resolution
Dr. Newberger provides couples in conflict a graceful and effective alternative to traditional marriage counseling / couples counseling. Dr. Newberger serves clients in Southwest Florida (SWFL), particularly Lee County and Collier County. Most clients live in Naples, Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Bonita Springs, Estero, Ft Myers Beach, Sanibel Island, Marco Island, and Punta Gorda FL. Dr. Newberger will help you rebuild your marriage using his own unique process. Click the "Peacemaking Process" in the menu bar at the top of this page to learn more.