Practicum Monday: Scott Stanley on Couple Conflicts

Last week in our staff meeting we listened to the end of Scott Stanley’s conference presentation on couples communication. You may remember I blogged previously on his funny but too-true analogy of dogs and marriage (We fall in love with the front end of the puppy/marriage, but they both have backs ends that need to be managed).

In this section of the presentation he makes this statement: events trigger issues. Couples tend to fight about events but really most conflicts are about issues that are deeper (e.g., Who gets the say around here, Do I have influence, Do you care, and other expectation clashes). The challenge is to get couples to see past events to the issues.

Problem: most couples only talk about issues during emotionally charged events. Why? It would be easy to say avoidance. But take that a step further. If the couple is no longer in conflict, why bring up something that is likely to trigger it? As Stanley says, “We’re really getting along right now, so I don’t want to screw it up by talking about a problem.” Seems good in the moment, but bad over time.

Stanley’s point is to deal with this problem by (a) handling events well (time out, staying in the moment, etc.), and (b) being proactive by maintaining safe, open communication about issues. This takes sacrifice, he says. Healthy sacrifice (not martyrdom) is pretty powerful and helpful in moving toward the desires of the other.

Here’s a couple of my thoughts:

Stanley has some great techniques and seems to have a good handle on what goes wrong in conflict. I think many couples can benefit from better care of the “back end” and making sure to remember and reinforce the front end as well. He rightly points out that we can easily miss the good sacrifices others do daily and then only recognize the good when it stops for some reason. If we’re not careful we take for granted the sacrifices of others and come to expect and even demand them as rights.

Stanley’s techniques seem not to work with couples where insight is low, trauma or violence has been a part of it, when folks have personality disorders, or when the couple are deeply entrenched in their bitterness towards each other. All events have meaning. The couple that is not willing to reconsider the meanings they apply to events (she is evil, that is why she leaves the kitchen that way), little couple work is possible. In fact, maybe even contraindicated. Techniques that should help become

weapons to hurt and destroy. Couple counseling is based on the capacity to observe self and other and to withhold judgment to see life from another perspective. Without this, it is hard to make much progress outside of painstaking experiential work.


Filed under christian counseling, conflicts, counseling, counseling science, love, marriage, Psychology

2 responses to “Practicum Monday: Scott Stanley on Couple Conflicts

  1. Ryan

    I think the one think Stanley misses is that he doesn’t make mention of the issue of worship or the vertical relationship of the man of wife. Instead it sounds like he focuses only on the horizontal issue.

    In couples or marriage counseling though, I find that people often wants things and use people (and God) to get them. That is an issue of idolatry, spiritual adultery, and first and foremost a vertical issue between God and the person in conflict.

    If we just followed what Stanley says it seems like we’re just trying to manage sin better. What are the limitations if counselors fail to focus on the vertical relationship between man and God and focus only on the horizontal, non-heart issues?

  2. Correct. Scott himself is a Christian and very much bringing in the text. But I find that many researcher types fail to consider the vertical (e.g., forgiveness researchers who fail to mention the cross). On the other hand, there are practical things we all do to manage our sin. We avoid the fridge to keep from overeating, for example.

    Should we stop with the practical? No. But, one other interesting thought. HOW do we bring in the vertical? If many conflicts in marriage are more gut level unmet expectations, it can be hard for individuals to recognize and accept that they have a vertical dimension problem. That is our challenge.

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