Sunday, February 03, 2008

Marriage Veterans Share Conflict Resolution Secrets by Dr. Alan Singer

I interviewed 9 New Jersey Couples who are celebrating their 30th Wedding Anniversary this year. You'll see their terrific insights in this first installment covering conflict resolution, that was published in the Home News Tribune on 1 /23/08

According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey, there are 20 percent fewer couples reaching their 15th, 20th and 25th anniversaries. This new data comes as no real surprise but does address a major problem for families from a different direction. Rather than describing the enormous divorce rate, this survey shows a decrease in the number of long-term marriages.

For a better understanding of long-term marriages, I decided to survey nine Central Jersey couples who are celebrating 30 years of marriage this year (as are my wife and myself). Here is the collective wisdom of the couples who responded to the survey. Incidentally, half of the respondents are grandparents. Multiplying 30 years by two spouses by nine couples means that you will be benefiting from almost 600 years of marital experience here!

Since all of the sage advice from these couples will not fit into one column, I decided to begin with a practical topic: marital disagreements. I asked the marriage veterans what method of resolving marital arguments is most effective for them. The research of Dr. John Gottman in his Seattle Love Lab at the University of Washington indicates that each normal healthy marriage comes along with a package of irresolvable issues, such as division of household tasks and differences in approaches to child rearing. The key to a good marriage is not the resolution of conflict but rather the regulation of conflict, according to Gottman.

Couples who choose divorce to escape from low-conflict marriages often do not realize that with a second marriage they are likely to encounter a new set of irresolvable issues. Researchers Paul Amato and Alan Booth discovered that two-thirds of American divorces (involving children) are of couples who are in low-conflict marriages. Worth noting is that, from a child's point of view, these marriages are "good enough." Author Linda Waite, in her book "The Case for Marriage," found, "Eighty-six percent of unhappily married people who stick it out find that, five years later, their marriages are happier."

It is within the context of that encouraging research that I would like to share some comments of the 30th anniversary couples. Lisa and Mort believe that "listening to the other point of view and considering the possibility you might be wrong" is the most effective method of resolving a disagreement. Similarly, Robin and Michael stated, "Put yourself in the other person's shoes." They suggest that the key to conflict resolution is "remembering to look at the situation not only logically but with empathy for your spouse's feelings and emotions."

Susie emphasized that she and her husband, Barry, try not to let things fester. Their response points out the need for open, clear communication between spouses and the importance of "not taking things too seriously." Susie's method of choice is to "frankly express disappointments and disagreements with each other."

Steven and Diana emphasized the need for direct communication, as did Larry and Judy, who stated, "We discuss the problem and try to resolve it, but that is only after we spend time away from each other to cool off." The need to "cool off" was mentioned by other couples. Linda and Leonard try not to speak to each other at all before calming down. They stress "thinking before speaking," so that they don't regret it later. Linda considers what caused the argument and determines what they can do in the future to prevent hurting each other. She added, "We try to be more sensitive to each other's feelings."

Susan's humorous response shows her honesty and candor: "I try to cool off but sometimes my screams can be heard all around the world — yes, that was me last week!" For her and Leibe, "The most effective method is to talk it out or maybe just let it go." "Eventually you learn to forgive," Susan concluded, "if not always to forget." Last are the candid comments of Heather and Arthur: "We're not so good at resolving disagreements . . . between one passive-aggressive partner, and one upfront emotional partner, our disagreements tend to be very difficult."

"But compromise is certainly the best solution," Heather urged, "or when one partner swallows (his or her) needs in favor of Shalom Bayit" (Hebrew for "Peace in the Home"). Here is Linda's postscript: "Marriage is the best mistake we could have ever made, and may we be here to answer these questions again after 60 years of marriage!"

Be Counted columnist Dr. Alan Singer is a Marriage Therapist in Highland Park. Respond to this column at Dr. Singer's blog or e-mail