Intractable conflict in marriage


The latest American Psychologist (65:4, 2010) has an interesting article on the topic of intractable conflicts. These can be seen in families, communities or whole country disputes like found recently in Rwanda and the Congo.

The authors make this point at the outset of the article,

Conflict resolution should be easy. Conventional wisdom…has it that conflict arises when people feel their respective interests or needs are incompatible….A conflict that has become intractable should be especially easy to resolve….After all, a conflict with no ed in sight serves the interests of very few people, drains both parties’ resources, wastes energy, and diminishes human capital in service of a futile endeavor. Even a compromise solution that only partially addresses the salient needs and interests of the parties should be embraced when they realize that such a compromise represents a far better deal than pursuing a self-defeating pattern of behavior that offers them nothing but aversive outcomes with a highly uncertain prospect of goal attainment.  (p. 262)

True, but since when does logic ever beat conflict? It doesn’t and these authors know it.

As a conflict becomes a primary focus of each party’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, even factors that are irrelevant to the conflict become framed in a way that intensifies or maintains the conflict. It is as though the conflict acts like a gravity well into which the surrounding mental, behavioral, and social-structural landscape begins to slide. Once parties are trapped in such a well, escape requires tremendous will and energy and thus feels impossible. (ibid, my emphasis)

This is EXACTLY why marriage counseling is so difficult. Everything is read through the lens of “He is so controlling,” or “She won’t respect me.”

Why does this happen? On the surface, an intractable conflict might seem to be about land (e.g., Palestinians vs. Israelis) or about ideological solidarity (republicans vs. democrats) or about bald desire for power. In marriage conflict may appear to be about respect, money, or power. But these authors suggest that conflict becomes intractable because the larger system is supported by the conflict and would more or less collapse if peace were to overtake it. Attractors, they say help maintain a coherent view of the world, a way of promoting unequivocal action without hesitation. Truth be told. We like living in a black/white world where our actions are always clear to us and the bad guys are always bad. A word about power. In conflict, we use power to get what we want (via direct use or manipulation). But there are always power differences between parties. Someone always has more power. In couples, one spouse will always want more sex than the other. This isn’t a bad thing. It only becomes bad when either party refuses to accept the differences or show any capacity to be influenced by the other.

When peaceful resolutions take place, it is because a new system has been developed; a new set of values and definers of reality.

How do you implement such a change? You cannot go directly after the thing that maintains the conflict. In other words, don’t say, “You, wife, stop believing your husband doesn’t love you”; or “You, husband, start loving your wife by…” Built into the maintainers of conflict is a strain of resistance. “I know you just did something nice for me but you really are just trying to get on my good side so you can [fill in the blank], but I’m on to you!”

The authors say, and I agree, that, “Attempts to challenge directly the validity or practicality of an attractor for intractable conflict are therefore often doomed to fail and in fact are likely to intensify people’s beliefs and energize their response tendencies.” (p. 273)

Again, how do we deal with these longstanding conflicts? How do we stop seeing the problem as a simple equation (you stink and I’m great) to something more complex (we’re both broken and here’s what I can do to make things better)?

1. Force self to step back to see the complexity of the situation. This sometimes happens when something blows our mind (we act in a way we THOUGHT we never would). To do this we have to believe that the simple answer is easy but ALWAYS wrong and desire to have a more nuanced view of self and other

2. Go back to see previous unity. So, a couple might go back to remember their first love. What affinities did they once have? Can they recover them? Some couples can. From here, they may find the power to fix problems that seem just a wee bit smaller because of a more powerful unifying narrative that was forgotten.

3. Focus on who we want to be in the midst of trials and tribulations. What kind of person do I want to be (that God empowers me to be) come what may?

Notice that only #2 has to work towards maintaining the marriage and living in close quarters. One can develop a more complex and realistic view of the problem (#1) or focus on character development (#3) and still choose to end a violent or destructive relationship. Both also require that we value something greater than self-interest. From a Christian point of view, love must be the reason for all three options–a love given to us by God alone.

2 Comments

Filed under christian counseling, Cognitive biases, conflicts, counseling skills, Desires, marriage, Psychology, Relationships, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Intractable conflict in marriage

  1. Kim

    Hi Phil, Found your blog by a Google alert. I’m not a counselor, but I am a man who has almost lost his marriage. Changing my behavior is so hard! I’m coming to believe that Scripture is right when it says, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” And, by extension, my behavior acts. Your steps involving self-awareness, vision and purpose are clearly matters of the heart. It has been a real journey to see that my words and actions were foul because my heart was foul (even though I claimed to be a Christian). Changing my heart has been a real process. Blessings to you and your work/ministry! Kim

  2. It sounds kind of like cognitive behavioral therapy. I suppose conflict resolution would be easy if we were machines, but, like you said, we are far from logical. People are so complex, which can be beautiful, but also makes us all attribute different meanings to things. We can be saying the same words in the same language but understand it completely differently. It can be frustating but it’s a great feeling when it finally clicks, and you suddenly see it the way the other person does. I recently wrote an article on resolving conflict using scripture. You can read it here: http://www.examiner.com/x-44482-LA-Christian-Therapy-Examiner~y2010m6d1-How-to-manage-your-anger-and-resolve-conflicts-peacefully

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