Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Marital Conflict: Search for the Guilty


If conflict is becoming a problem in your marriage, this article is for you. What makes you angry about your spouse and what can he or she do to improve? He or she nags too much/ is too selfish/ spends too much/ doesn't care about intimacy anymore/ makes poor parent decisions/ doesn't do chores. Right now you are probably thinking, if only my spouse would change, our marriage would definitely improve. Dream on...

There is only one person in your marriage you can change: you. By definition, you are half of the problem and half of the solution. You may have noticed that your requests for your spouse to change sometime fall on deaf ears or may result in temporary change then backsliding. At other times these requests may be met with hostility and criticism of your behavior. When this situation shows up in a marriage counseling session, I say to myself: here we go again, the search for the guilty. Unfortunately marriages sometimes disintegrate into conflict and joint recrimination with neither party assuming responsibility for his or her own behavior.

Take some time for yourself to really think through the problems in your marriage as well as your dreams for the future. Create a picture of your new improved marriage. But this time, start with a self-analysis and a plan to change your part of the problem. Be thoughtful about the criticism you've heard from your spouse and decide how you can change to improve your marriage. Let's start with the problem of nagging. Your first thought is that your nagging is certainly justified because your spouse, for example, is too messy. Stop that thought for now, because if you dwell on the problems created by the mess, you'll start getting angry and feeling justified about your nagging. Realize that your choice of nagging as your change strategy is probably the least effective alternative. Think about the actual results of your nagging and you will probably see that it has created resentment and short-term or no change. What can you change? There are actually many possibilities: as a role model, you could improve your cleaning; you can praise your spouse for cleaning up whenever it happens; you could designate joint cleanup times; you could relax your anxiety about a messy room; you could allow your spouse a messy area in his or her own room. Make a plan and act on it. But what can you do about your anger, justified as it might be, about the current problem? Whatever you do, don't punish yourself or your spouse. Divert your anger away from the problem into other activities and/or develop self-soothing options for yourself using music, relaxation, hobbies, socializing, exercise, yoga, and so forth to calm impatience and frustration.

Of course there are other options, but they all start with you taking responsibility for your behavior. The next step will be to engage your spouse in a discussion about the issue. Plan to talk with your spouse in a positive context at a mutually agreed upon time and place with you and your spouse really listening to each other as you talk through the issue. The previous article in this series described active listening with your spouse, including the speaker-listener technique. A good outcome of this discussion would be for your partner to appreciate your positive role model in taking responsibility for your behavior and then decide to do the same.

If your world is not ideal, you can consult a marriage counselor either individually or with your spouse. A marriage counselor can help support you in this process of changing yourself and changing your marriage even if your spouse is reluctant to come to sessions with you. If both participate in the marriage counseling, the therapist will help each of you take responsibility for your own behavior in addressing ways to resolve your problems.