What Is the Number One Source of Marital Conflict?

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Perspective is an important part of clarity
Before you read further, pause for a moment and consider your answer.

Words like communication, money, religion, and relationship might come to mind. All of these would be accurate and typical responses.

And yet, embedded in each of these words is a very simple, two-word phrase that I believe is the root cause of conflict: “I assumed.”

Assumptions Cause Conflict

Think about all of the times you became angry, judgmental, or sad. Was it because you had an expectation or made an assumption about something or someone else?

  • I assumed we would go to my family’s home for the holidays this year because we went to your family’s home last year.
  • I assumed that you would clean the kitchen because that’s what you usually do.
  • I assumed that you would not use the credit cards anymore because we are trying to save money.
  • I assumed that the children would receive religious education.

Perspective Makes a Difference

As a divorce mediator, I am very alert to the underlying causes of my clients’ pain and worry. Many clients are scared about finances and the relationship and, of course, their connection to the children.

Imagine a conversation about parenting plans. Mom suggests one plan and Dad another. Each assumes that their respective position is obviously the best or preferred choice. And when they asked to elaborate, their language is often filled with criticism and judgments.

Details Are Important

Sometimes when couples come to me for a consultation, they share they just want “some space” from each other. They’re not quite sure if the marriage is over, but they want certain details ironed out before they live separately. Of course, I help them with the financial ground rules, but more importantly, I alert them that they might need some emotional and behavioral ground rules as well. Questions we discuss include:

  • Do you want to “date” each other?
  • Will you date others?
  • Will you be intimate with each other?
  • Do you want to only discuss the children?
  • Will it be OK to ask about each other’s feelings?
  • Will you attend family events like weddings and the like together?
  • What are you telling the children?
  • What are you telling your friends and family?

As each person ponders this list, they become aware of how difficult “I assumed” can be. It is clear that if the answers to these sorts of questions are not clarified, then the couple is very likely to end up angrier, sadder, and more disappointed.

For example, one might say to the other: “If you though that ignoring me was going to get us back together, well, think again.” And the responder says: “I wasn’t ignoring you, I was just giving you space.” These are two very different interpretations of the reason for separating.

The Key Is Clarity

One of the most important aspects of mediating is bringing clarity to the conversation. It involves gently probing exactly what is meant by statements or circumstances. A mediator can highlight the what-ifs and several different scenarios to make sure that there is a jointly-held understanding.

Often I need to nudge clients into the future, probing whether the issue at hand will stand the test of time, growing children, and perhaps new relationships.

Imagine the scenario where Mom or Dad agrees to spend time with the children (before school or after school) at the other parent’s home. Or one parent will put the kids to bed several nights per week in the other parent’s home.

How will that work when other people live in the residence? “Well, I assumed that we’d change the plan if that happened.” The challenge there is assuming the other will take the initiative to change the plan.

Clarity Minimizes and Resolves Conflict

Here are some hints to add clarity to your communications:

Hint Example
Make clear, positive requests or statements “Please look at me when I am speaking.”
Vague language adds confusion. Clarify what you mean when using words like, honesty, trust, respect, parenting:
“For me, respect means you arrive on time to pick up the children.”
Check your understanding. Paraphrase their words back to the speaker. “I understand you want more time with the kids. Can you say what ‘more time’ means to you?”

A Book on Clarity

I frequently recommend an excellent book by Marshall Rosenberg that emphasizes how essential clarity is and elaborates on ways to incorporate clarity into your words and relationships. The book is Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships. The concept is referred to as NVC, and there are workshops and study groups to enhance your knowledge and application of the NVC method. You can find additional information at www.cnvc.org.

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