Couples in Conflict: How She Sees It & How He Sees It



Marital conflicts are demanding, difficult and disturbing. Especially true when each party defines the problem differently. Sometimes it seems like each party is reading from a different script. One party is biased, while the other has the ability to see things “as they really are.” One partner is perfectly sane, while the other is, well let’s just say “the other has problems.” 

So, who’s right? Who’s wrong? As is true for many things in life, it depends.

Let’s first focus on how women often view the problem:

“They married and lived happily ever after.”  Though it’s the rare woman who would admit to believing in such a fairy tale ending, conflicts often originate and continue because she’s upset that the relationship has changed or it’s not the way it used to be.

Women often perceive the problem first. They initiate getting help. They want to “work on the marriage.” They’re vocal with their disenchantment. They’ve invested a lot in the relationship; they want it to be better. Perhaps she’s feeling emotionally distant, or misunderstood, unappreciated. Maybe she feels they’re not spending enough time together, they have parenting problems, there’s a lack of communication, a lack of sexual intimacy or lack of trust.  

She questions why the relationship can’t be better. Why doesn’t he listen? Why doesn’t he spend more time with me? Why doesn’t he treat me special, the way he used to? Why doesn’t he “get it”?

Some days she finds fault with everything he does. Other days she berates herself. Maybe she’s asking for too much. Maybe she’s being too critical. Maybe if she acted differently, he’d be more loving. Maybe if she didn’t confront him about matters, he wouldn’t be so defensive. Give him hints rather than keep hounding him. Talk to him lovingly rather than critically. Maybe then he’d get the message, and she’d stop feeling so lonely, so disappointed.   

As she continues to obsess about what’s wrong with the relationship, her frustration grows. At times, she feels like a nag constantly reminding her husband to do tasks he puts off. Other times, she feels like a plaintiff accusing her husband of not caring, not understanding, not listening. Still other times, she feels like his mother, constantly explaining to him what he’s doing wrong, scolding him for what he neglected to tend to. 

The worst days, however, are those in which she feels like a madwoman — yelling, screaming, crying, admitting to herself that maybe she really is out-of-control. She detests being in those roles; it makes her feel awful about herself. Yet, what else can she do? 

The communication goes nowhere. They keep reaching an impasse. He views her as unreasonable, hysterical, excessively critical or a control freak. So, she tries to back off waiting to see if he changes his behavior without her prodding. He doesn’t. She despairs. She doesn’t know what else to do. Nothing seems to work.   

Having no place to go with her frustration, she turns to her friends. They listen to her, understand her, support her. They are her allies. She no longer feels crazy. Still, there’s no resolution in sight. Hence, she may begin her own individual therapy to combat her anger and depression. Or she may simply stay stuck, stuffing all of those feelings inside.   

Marital conflicts are demanding, difficult and disturbing. Especially true when each party defines the problem differently, as though each is reading from a different script. One party is biased, while the other has the ability to see things “as they really are.” One partner is perfectly sane, while the other is; well let’s just say “the other has problems.” 

So, who’s right? Who’s wrong? As is true for many things in life, it depends.

Now let’s see how men typically perceive marital conflict.

Men often feel ambushed, drawn into an angry undertow without warning. So how does a man typically respond?

  • He masks his emotions with silence, not saying anything, maybe walking away.
  • He goes to bat for himself, reminding her of all the things he’s done right.
  • He expresses anger and resentment that he’s being accused unfairly. 
  • He tells her she’s being hysterical; he can’t talk with her when she’s out of control.
  • He tells her that her resentment has no expiration date — why is she bringing up stuff that happened so long ago?
  • He holds himself back from expressing any feelings, aiming to create a more balanced pose.

What happens when she hears any of these responses? Does the marital conflict get any closer to resolution? A resounding no! Why? Because she doesn’t feel heard. She just feels that he’s defending himself and/or attacking her.

Since he’s responded in the way he thinks he should respond, he doesn’t understand why his wife is even more upset. For God’s sake, what-does-she-want?

When she suggests marital therapy, he may feel threatened. Why are you going to talk to somebody who will take sides and tell you how to act? Besides he doesn’t want to admit to needing help; it’s a sign of weakness. We should be able to resolve our conflicts on our own.

So can they? Perhaps. It helps if they trade brains; if she can see things the way he sees them; if he can see things the way she sees them. So, let’s see how we can do that without contacting a brain surgeon.

First, know that the fact that you’re having conflicts with your partner doesn’t mean there’s real trouble in your relationship. For those couples who shy from expressing their discontent never reach any resolution, enabling the distress to grow silently and deadly. 

So, don’t be afraid to bring up what’s bothering you. But how you bring it up is important.

Now here are some guidelines for upgrading your conflict resolution skills:

  • Whoever is bringing up the issue, be clear about what’s bothering you and what changes you’d like to see in your partner. Bring your complaint up sooner rather than later so that you’re not seething with hostility when you do address the issue.
  • Don’t assault your partner’s character or say such things as “you never” or “you always.” These comments invite a defensive response, frequently followed by an assault on your character.
  • When you’re the person on the receiving end of the complaint, listen, listen, listen to what your partner is saying rather than automatically defending yourself. Try to understand his/her point of view. 
  • If your partner hasn’t been clear, ask how you can make things better or relieve the stress or help with the problem. 
  • Do not cross-complain, which is coming up with your own complaint in response to what was said. If you’ve been harboring a complaint of your own, bring it up at another time.
  • Avoid “yes-butting” responses, such as “yes, I know you want me to take care of that but I just don’t have the time.” We all know intuitively that what comes before but is an excuse; what comes after it is the essence of your statement. Hence, don’t be surprised if the response to your yes-but statement is increased hostility.

It’s a struggle to resolve marital conflict. And it’s particularly tough when each person has a different perspective on the situation. So, when trying to find a resolution to your conflict, see if you can err on the side of generosity and forgiveness rather than blame and shame. 

©2019 Linda Sapadin, Ph.D 



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