In this blog, we introduce the most common reason that a marriage moves from a positive experience to a frustratingly negative one. Some spouses ultimately live with a cold war or repeated arguments. Others get a divorce.
First, a brief history. In most cultures around the world, disagreements were resolved by designating a final decision-maker, almost always the husband. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, this began to change dramatically as husbands and wives broke out of restrictive roles of housewife and provider. Marriages became egalitarian, which meant that there was no longer a final decision-maker if a disagreement did not get resolved. This not only opened up endless opportunities for marital partners but also posed a challenge: How to resolve disagreements? Many disagreements did not pose serious challenges. One spouse might defer to the other or the spouses might come up with an acceptable plan.
Some disagreements were not easily resolved. Unresolved important disagreements tend to become arguments, which can morph into marital conflict. That is when dirty tricks start to show up: manipulating, lying, bullying and getting personal with criticisms. A researcher documented that at some point, the marriage starts going through five stages of negative opinions and feelings about one other: apathy and finally a divorce (John Gottman).
The sad part is that marriages might be described as “bad” by the spouses, but they were not “bad” when things started going south. The divorce started when the spouses were unable to resolve fairly normal marital disagreements (e.g., about money, parenting, extended family problems, physical affection and so on).
Why do spouses have successful marriages? Very simply, they have the skills to resolve even important gut-wrenching disagreements. Their marriage does not morph into serious marital conflict, negative opinions about one another, dirty tricks and so on.
Our research, based on a study conducted by Ken (Waldron) and a colleague (Eileen McCarten), and the studies of others identified seven distinct skills that people in successful marriages use to resolve marital disagreements. Each of these skills can be understood and learned. Our book, The Road to Successful Marriage is Unpaved: Seven Skills for Making Marriage Work, highlighted on this website provides lengthy descriptions of the skills, lessons and drills for learning those skills. The book is written in a manner to promote having fun learning the skills together and can be an important way to start a marriage.