4 Research-Based Tools for Building a Healthy Marriage: Functional Conflict, Tool 1

As part three in the marriage series, I am sharing four research-based strategies for building a healthy marriage: functional conflict, scanning for positive interaction opportunities, affirming one another’s successes, and building a trusting environment.

For each of these four, I will summarize the research and suggestions from the experts, with a particular focus on the work of Dr. John Gottman, an influential researcher in the field of marriage.

I have also created resources for couples to inventory their current use of these strategies and look for opportunities to grow together.  Each strategy will have a short quiz couples can take and score.  These quizzes are exploratory tools; they are not definitive measures of a couple’s health.  I hope that they will be useful in creating discussion, exploration and possibly growth; that is the only goal.

This research does not describe every possible problem and/or solution available (obviously), but it might be some good food for thought.  Whether a couple is already happy and functional or whether they are attached by nothing but a thread, growth is possible at any point on the spectrum.

This first post will focus on functional conflict and will focus on three areas:

  • Do partners advocate for a healthy relationship?
  • Is there a balance between positive and negative interactions
  • Are personal attacks avoided?


Functional Conflict: Advocacy for a Healthy Relationship.  Maintaining Balance, and Avoiding Personal Attacks

Advocacy for a healthy relationship. One misnomer for the “happy and functional marriage” is the “conflict free marriage.”  This is not the case.  As a matter of fact, talking through problems is a sign of health in a relationship.

According to researchers Gottman and Silver in the article “What Makes Marriage Work,” “Fighting, when it airs grievances and complaints, can be one of the healthiest things a couple can do for their relationship.” He states that a healthy marriage is based upon “a couple’s ability to resolve the conflicts that are inevitable in any relationship.”

Basically, conflict is one model for working through the aspects of the relationship that could create resentment if not brought to the surface.  If each partner is committed to making the relationship work for the betterment of each person, then arguments can be an effective way to correct the course and grow together as a couple.

Maintaining Balance. Gottman and Silver describe many types of marriages, some that fight explosively and some that fight hardly at all.  They say the key is this: “What really separates contented couples from those in deep marital misery is a healthy balance between their positive and negative feelings and actions toward each other.”  The magic number according to his research is 5:1- five positive interactions for every one negative.

Avoiding Personal Attacks. So is there a right way to fight? The Atlantic article “Masters of Love” by Esfahan Smith points out that couples who focus on action as opposed to character while fighting fair better in the long run.  This is, the difference between saying, “You forgot to take out the trash again.  Can you please take it out?” and saying “You are always so lazy.  Why can’t you take out the trash?”

The former focuses on an a specific action that is frustrating.  The latter does multiple things that cause problems in the long run.

1. It assigns a negative character trait instead of focusing on the action by claiming the partner is “lazy”

2.  It uses the word “always.”  Words like this represent an ultimate and unchanging reality- “he always criticizes me” or “she never cares about my feelings.”  They are undoubtedly hyperboles and also convey a fixed mindset about the person

3. It is phrased as an accusation, “Why can’t you” shows contempt and puts the other person on the defensive

Confirming this, Gottman and Silver outline four “horseman” that can indicate the demise of a couple’s relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling.  Using the example above, if a person is critical and contemptuous when instigating conflict, then defensiveness and stonewalling are likely to result. So begins a vicious cycle.

What is Your Current Conflict Style?

Here is an eight question Conflict Style Quiz you can take, and here is the Key for the Conflict Style Quiz for the quiz after you have completed it.

When I used these tools in my own relationship, we discussed the questions and results and looked at the criteria being evaluated to see where improvements could possibly occur.

I believe that assessments are only helpful if they are used as tools to grow.  They can actually inhibit growth if the internal dialogue ends with “Oh, no.  I have an unhealthy conflict style.”

I hope these tools are growth points for you, or they affirm the good work you are already doing in your relationship!


Were these tools helpful in building a dialogue?  

Please share your thoughts, ideas and connections.  

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