Fighting for Your Marriage: Positive Steps for Preventing Divorce and Preserving a Lasting Love, New and Revised

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  • Edition: Revised
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2001-08-01
  • Publisher: Jossey-Bass
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This new and revised edition of Fighting for Your Marriage is based on the widely acclaimed PREP(r) (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program) approach. Groundbreaking studies have found that couples can use the strategies of this approach to handle conflict more constructively, protect their happiness, and reduce the odds of breaking up. Based on twenty years of university research, this popular book will show you how to: * Talk more and fight less * Deepen and protect your friendship * Have a more intimate, sensual relationship * Keep the fun alive * Clarify and act on your priorities * Develop a vision for your future together

Author Biography

<B>Howard J. Markman</B>, Ph.D., is internationally known for his work on divorce prevention. He is professor of psychology and codirector of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. <BR> <B>Scott M. Stanley</B>, Ph.D., is a noted expert on marriage and commitment, and is codirector of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. He has coauthored <I>A Lasting Promise</I>, the Christian version of this book. <BR> <B>Susan L. Blumberg</B>, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and director of Interpersonal Communication Options. She specializes in helping families and couples revitalize their relationships.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments v
Introduction 1(24)
Part One: Understanding the Risks on the Road to Lasting Love
Four Hallmarks of a Great Relationship: PREP in a Nutshell
Destructive Patterns: Signs of Danger Ahead
Changing Roles, Changing Rules: Men and Women in Conflict
Part Two: Teaming Up to Handle Conflict
When What You Heard Isn't What I Said: Understandign Filters in Communication
Talking Safely Without Fighting: The Speaker-Listener Technique
Controlling the Home Fires: Handling Issues and Events Well
New Perspectives on Problems and Problem Solving
Keeping Conflict Under Control: Ground Rules for a Great Relationship
Part Three: Enjoying Each Other
Safe Harbor: Preserving and Protecting Friendship
Playing Together: How to Succeed in Fun Without Really Trying
Sense and Sensuality: Enhancing and Protecting Your Sex Life
Sacred Places: Core Beliefs and Spiritual Intimacy
Part Four: Staying the Course
Why You Can't Always Get What You Want: Unraveling the Mysteries of Expectations
Forgiveness: Restoring Hope
Sticking, Stuck, or Stopped: On the Path to Commitment
What to Do Now
Some Thoughts on Domestic Violence 353(2)
Resources and Training 355(2)
Selected Research and References 357(8)
About the Author 365(2)
Index 367


Chapter One

Four Key Patterns That Can

Harm a Relationship

    O ne of the most powerful things you can do to protect your marriage is to learn constructive ways to handle conflict, differences, and disagreements. Researchers from two major research labs in the United States found that the likelihood of divorce can be predicted by studying how couples handle conflict. In this chapter, we will focus on four specific patterns of conflictual interactions that often lead to marital problems:

   1. Escalation

   2. Invalidation

   3. Withdrawal and avoidance

   4. Negative interpretations

Once you understand these patterns, you can learn to prevent them from taking over your relationship. As we describe them, we'll also provide some ideas for counteracting them. In later chapters, we will focus in much greater depth on how you can protect your relationship from such negative patterns.

    If you're currently happy together, you can use the PREP approach to prevent these patterns from developing in the first place. If you're experiencing relationship problems, we want to motivate you to fight more constructively, so that issues actually get resolved. Let's start by looking at the four predictive patterns.



Escalation occurs when partners negatively respond back and forth to each other, continually upping the ante so that conditions get worse and worse. Often, negative comments spiral into increasing anger and frustration. Couples who are happy now and likely to stay that way are less prone to escalation; if their arguments start to escalate, they're able to stop the negative process before it erupts into a full-blown, nasty fight. The escalation process is clearly seen in the interactions of a couple who participated in our PREP research and programs.

    Ted, a thirty-four-year-old construction worker, and Wendy, thirty-two, who runs a catering business out of their home, were married for eight years when we first saw them. As with many couples, their fights started over small issues:

TED: sarcastically You'd think you could put the cap back on the toothpaste.

WENDY: equally sarcastically Oh, like you never forget to put it back.

TED: As a matter of fact, I always put it back.

WENDY: Oh, I forgot just how compulsive you are. You're right, of course!

TED: I don't even know why I stay with you. You are so negative.

WENDY: Maybe you shouldn't stay. No one is barring the door.

    One of the most damaging things about arguments that are escalating out of control is that partners tend to say things that threaten the very lifeblood of their marriage. As frustration and hostility mount, partners often try to hurt each other by hurling verbal (and sometimes physical) weapons. You can see this pattern with Ted and Wendy, where the stakes quickly rose to include threats of ending the relationship. Once very negative, verbally abusive comments are made, they're hard to take back. The damage can be undone, but it takes a lot of work. Saying "I was just kidding when I said you should move out" may not cut it, because it doesn't address the hurt feelings.

    Partners can say the nastiest things during escalating arguments, but such remarks often don't reflect what they actually feel about the other. You may believe that people reveal their "true feelings" in the midst of fierce fights, but we don't think that this is usually the case. Instead, they mostly try to hurt the other person and to defend themselves. One of the biggest problems with this scenario is that the comments that hurt the other person the most tend to be confidences that were shared at earlier, intimate moments. Hence, in the heat of escalation, the weapons chosen are often based on intimate knowledge of the partner.

    In Wendy and Ted's argument, for example, Wendy mentioned Ted's being compulsive because she really wanted to hit him below the belt. At a more tender moment between them, he once shared his concerns about being so driven and said that he'd learned this style to please his father when he was growing up. While you may think that Wendy was provoked in this argument, nevertheless, the escalation quickly led to her use of intimate knowledge to gain the upper hand. Such tactics are tantamount to marital terrorism and cause great pain and damage in the relationship. When escalation includes the use of intimate knowledge as a weapon, the threat to the future likelihood of tender moments is great. Who's going to share deep feelings if the information may be used later when conflict is out of control in the relationship?

    You may be thinking, "We don't fight like cats and dogs--how does this apply to us?" In fact, escalation can be very subtle. Voices don't have to be raised for you to get into the cycle of returning negative for negative. Yet research shows that even subtle patterns of escalation can lead to divorce in years to come. Consider the following conversation between Max and Donna, newlyweds in their twenties, who are just starting out in an apartment in Denver:

MAX: Did you get the rent paid on time?

DONNA: That was going to be your job.

MAX: You were supposed to do it.

DONNA: No, you were.

MAX: Did it get done?

DONNA: No. And, I'm not going to, either.

MAX: [muttering] Great. Just great.

    If you could actually listen to this argument, you would not hear raised voices. In fact, if you heard this conversation through a wall, without being able to tell what was being said, the tone could sound quite casual. However, you can see the negative-to-negative character of this conversation. That is escalation as we define it in our research.

    Even escalation at this low level is destructive over time. Being newlyweds, Donna and Max are very happy with their marriage. Imagine, however, years of small arguments like this one taking a toll on their marriage, eroding the positive things that they now share.

    The more arguments escalate, the more at risk couples are for future problems. It's very important for the future health of your relationship to learn to counteract whatever tendency you have for your arguments to escalate. If they don't escalate very much, great! Your goal is to learn to keep things that way. If they do escalate a fair amount, your goal is to recognize this problem and to stop it.


All couples have arguments that escalate from time to time, but some couples steer out of the pattern more quickly, and much more positively. Compare Ted and Wendy's argument, earlier, with Maria and Hector's. Maria, a forty-five-year-old sales clerk for a jewelry store, and Hector, a forty-nine-year-old attorney who works for the Justice Department, have been married twenty-three years. They came to one of our workshops in Vail, Colorado, referred by a local marital therapist who felt they could benefit from our weekend communication workshop. Like Ted and Wendy, they also tended to argue about everyday events, as in this example:

MARIA: annoyed You left the butter out again.

HECTOR: irritated Why are little things so important to you? Just put it back.

MARIA: softening her tone Things like that are important to me. Is that so bad?

HECTOR: calmer I guess not. Sorry I was snotty.

    Notice the difference. Like Wendy and Ted's argument, Hector and Maria's argument showed escalation, but they quickly steered out of it. When escalation sequences are short-circuited, it's usually because one partner backs off and says something to de-escalate the argument, thus breaking the negative cycle.

     Maria and Hector each did something constructive to end the escalation. For her part, Maria softened her tone rather than getting defensive. For his part, Hector made the decision to back off and acknowledge Maria's point of view. Softening your tone and acknowledging your partner's point of view are powerful tools you can use to defuse tension and end escalation. As we go on, we'll be teaching you powerful and specific ways to do just this.



Invalidation is a pattern in which one partner subtly or directly puts down the thoughts, feelings, or character of the other. Sometimes such comments, intentionally or unintentionally, lower the self-esteem of the targeted person. Invalidation can take many forms. Let's listen in on two other arguments between Ted and Wendy and between Maria and Hector.

WENDY: very angrily You missed your doctor's appointment again! You're so irresponsible. I could see you dying and leaving me, just like your father.

TED: bruised Thanks a lot. You know I'm nothing like my father.

WENDY: He was a creep and so are you.

TED: dripping with sarcasm I'm sorry. I forgot my good fortune to be married to such a paragon of responsibility. You can't even keep your purse organized.

WENDY: At least I am not so obsessive about stupid little things.

TED: You're so arrogant.

MARIA: with a tear You know, I'm really frustrated by the hatchet job Bob did on my evaluation at work.

HECTOR: I don't think he was all that critical. I'd be happy to have an evaluation as positive as that from Fred.

MARIA: with a sigh and turning away You don't get it. It upset me.

HECTOR: Yeah, I see that, but I still think you're overreacting.

    While both these examples show invalidation, the first example is much more caustic than the second. With Wendy and Ted, you can feel the belligerence and contempt seeping through. The argument has settled into an attack on character. And although Hector and Maria do not show the same nastiness expressed by Ted and Wendy, Hector is subtly putting down Maria for the way she's feeling. He may even think that he's being constructive or trying to cheer her up by saying, in effect, "It's not so bad." Nevertheless, this kind of communication is also invalidating. Maria feels more hurt now because Hector has said, in effect, that her feelings of sadness and frustration are inappropriate.

    Another subtle form of invalidation occurs when you are expecting praise for some positive action that is ignored by your partner, while some minor problem is highlighted. For example, suppose that you worked hard all afternoon to reorganize and clean up the kitchen, and your spouse came home and complained because you didn't get to the store. You're going to feel pretty invalidated. Going out of your way to do something positive, then being ignored or criticized for your efforts, can be very painful and frustrating.

    Invalidation hurts. It leads naturally to covering up who you are and what you think, because it becomes just too risky to do otherwise. People naturally cover up their innermost feelings when they believe that they will be "put down." Our research shows that invalidation is one of the very best predictors of future problems and divorce. Interestingly, the amount of validation in a relationship doesn't say as much about its health as the amount of invalidation does. Invalidation is a highly toxic poison to the well-being of your relationship.


In either argument above, both couples would have done better if each partner had shown respect for and acknowledged the other's viewpoint. Note the difference in how these conversations could have gone:

WENDY: very angry I'm very angry that you missed the doctor's appointment again. I worry about you being around for me in the future.

TED: bruised It really upset you, didn't it?

WENDY: You bet. I want to know that you're going to be there for me, and when you miss an appointment that I'm anxious about, I worry about us.

TED: I understand why it would make you worried when I don't take care of myself.

MARIA: with a tear You know, I'm really frustrated by the hatchet job Bob did on my evaluation at work.

HECTOR: That must really tick you off.

MARIA: Yeah, it does. And, I also get worried about whether I'll be able to keep this job. What would we do?

HECTOR: I didn't know you were so worried about losing your job. Tell me more about how you are feeling.

    In these examples, we have replayed the issues but with very different outcomes for both couples. Now we see ownership of feelings, respect for each other's character, and an emphasis on validation. By validation , we mean that the one raising the concern is respected and heard. You don't have to agree with your partner to validate his or her feelings. Validation is a powerful tool that you can use both to build intimacy and to reduce anger and resentment. But it takes discipline, especially when you're really frustrated or angry. In later chapters we'll teach you some very effective ways to enhance validation.




Withdrawal and avoidance are different manifestations of a pattern in which one partner shows an unwillingness to get into or stay with important discussions. Withdrawal can be as obvious as getting up and leaving the room or as subtle as "turning off" or "shutting down" during an argument. The withdrawer may tend to get quiet during an argument or may quickly agree to some suggestion just to end the conversation, with no real intention of following through.

    Avoidance reflects the same reluctance to participate in certain discussions, with more emphasis on preventing the conversation from happening in the first place. A person prone to avoidance would prefer it if the difficult topic never came up, and if it did, might manifest the signs of withdrawal described above.

    Let's look at this pattern as it was played out in a discussion between Paula, a twenty-eight-year-old realtor, and Jeff, a thirty-two-year-old loan officer. Married for three years, they have a two-year-old baby girl, Tanya, whom they both adore. They were concerned that the tension in their relationship was starting to affect their daughter:

PAULA: When are we going to talk about how you're handling your anger.

JEFF: Can't this wait? I have to get these taxes done.

PAULA: I've brought this up at least five times already. No, it can't wait!

JEFF: tensing What's to talk about, anyway? It's none of your business.

PAULA: frustrated and looking right at Jeff Tanya is my business. I'm afraid that you may lose your temper and hurt her, and you won't do a darn thing to learn to deal better with your anger.

JEFF: turning away and looking out the window I love Tanya. There's no problem here. leaving the room as he talks

PAULA: very angry now, following Jeff into the next room You have to get some help. You can't just stick your head in the sand.

JEFF: I'm not going to discuss anything with you when you are like this.

PAULA: Like what? It doesn't matter if I'm calm or frustrated--you won't talk to me about anything important. Tanya is having problems and you have to face that.

JEFF: quiet, tense, fidgeting

PAULA: Well?

JEFF: going to the closet and grabbing sweater I'm going out to have a drink and get some peace and quiet.

PAULA: voice raised, angry Talk to me, now. I'm tired of you leaving when we're talking about something important.

JEFF: looking away from Paula and walking toward the door I'm not talking, you are. Actually, you're yelling. See you later.

    Many couples do this kind of dance when it comes to dealing with difficult issues. One partner pursues dealing with issues (Paula) and one avoids or withdraws from dealing with issues (Jeff). This common scenario is very destructive to the relationship. As with the other patterns presented, it doesn't have to be this dramatic to predict problems to come. It's one of the most powerful predictors of unhappiness and divorce.

    The pursuer is the one in the relationship who most often brings issues up for discussion or calls attention to the need to make a decision about something. The withdrawer is the person who tends to avoid these discussions or pull away during them. Studies show that men tend to take the withdrawing role more frequently with women tending to pursue. However, in many relationships this pattern is reversed. It is also common for partners to switch these roles, depending on the topic. For example, one of you may handle the budget and be more likely to pursue in discussions about money-related problems. Your partner may handle issues about the children's schooling more often, and so may be more likely to pursue in talking about these concerns. Nevertheless, relative to females, males are more likely to take the withdrawing role across a range of issues.


Research clearly shows that male withdrawal and avoidance are clear predictors of problems now and in the future. In the next chapter, we'll tell you why men are more likely to take the role of withdrawer and what withdrawal is all about. If you're seeing this pattern in your relationship, keep in mind that it will likely get worse if you allow it to continue. That's because as pursuers push more, withdrawers withdraw more, and as withdrawers pull back, pursuers push harder. Furthermore, when issues are important, it should be obvious that trying to avoid dealing with them will only lead to damaging consequences. You can't stick your head in the sand and pretend that important or bothersome problems are not really there.

    In the case of withdrawal and avoidance, the first and best step you can take right now is to realize that you are not independent of each another. Your actions cause reactions, and vice versa. For this reason, you will have much greater success if you work together to change or prevent the kinds of negative patterns discussed here. Withdrawers are not likely to reduce avoidance unless pursuers pursue less or more constructively. Pursuers will find it hard to cut back on pursuing unless withdrawers deal more directly with the issues at hand.

    Here's one way that Jeff and Paula were able to deal with their dilemma after taking one of our workshops. Before things got out of hand the next time, Jeff decided to take a more constructive approach:

JEFF: Okay. I can see you're really frustrated about this, and we need to talk it out.

PAULA: Right!

JEFF: We do need to talk about it, but I'm really not up to it right now. How about we agree that we'll sit down, face to face, and talk about Tanya tonight after she falls asleep.

PAULA: Will you really do that?

JEFF: Yes, if you'll give me some space on this until then.

PAULA: Okay. I'll go for that. Tonight, as soon as Tanya falls asleep, we talk.

JEFF: You can count on it.

    This is a much more constructive pattern. They agreed to a plan that gives each something they want. Jeff got some time to calm down and think about how he sees the issues concerning Tanya. Paula got the talk she was seeking, but at a time when Jeff could participate constructively. Paula had to back off from pursuing for the moment and Jeff agreed to quit avoiding the conversation. This plan worked well for them because they both followed through and did what they agreed to do, working as a team to overcome the negative pattern.

    We'll get much more specific about ways to combat these patterns in the next few chapters. For now, try to agree that if you're having trouble with pursuit and/or withdrawal, you will work together to change the pattern.


At times, withdrawal is better than the alternative, particularly if the conflict is likely to escalate to the point of physical aggression. Physical violence is a pervasive problem in our culture. Approximately 25 percent of couples report incidents of pushing, shoving, or hitting within the previous year. Both men and women in these relationships resort to physical tactics from time to time, although it is potentially more dangerous for the husband to become violent and control his wife through fear and threats. For many couples, physical aggression is the outgrowth of poor handling of escalation and withdrawal.

    For some couples, there is a much more dangerous pattern, in which the husband batters the wife and his intention is to wear down, subjugate, and dominate his partner. If this sounds like your situation, please get help. In an emergency, you can call the police. Short of that, help can be found by calling organizations that help women find safety and obtain advice for dealing with domestic violence. Most communities have shelters or advocacy groups; phone numbers for such resources can be obtained by calling your local police or mental health agency. This book is designed, in part, to help couples handle conflict, but conflict at this physically and emotionally dangerous level requires professional help and legal intervention.

    If you have a pattern of occasional physical aggression consisting of pushing, shoving, or slapping, the PREP approach can teach you how to cut the escalation cycles that lead up to such actions and how to use a constructive form of mutual, agreed upon withdrawal--Time Out. As we go on, we'll teach you techniques for handling escalation and withdrawal in the most productive manner. Nevertheless, if you are worried about physical danger, please seek additional help.





Negative interpretations occur when one partner consistently believes that the motives of the other are more negative than is really the case. This can be a very destructive pattern in a relationship, and it will make any conflict or disagreement harder to deal with constructively.

    You can see the effects of negative interpretations in the discussions of two of our research couples, but to different degrees. Margot and David have been married twelve years and they are generally happy with their relationship. Yet their discussions have been plagued at times by a specific negative interpretation. Every December they've had trouble deciding whether to travel to Margot's parents' home for the holidays. Margot believes that David dislikes her parents, but in fact, he is quite fond of them in his own way. She has this mistaken belief because of a few misunderstandings early in the marriage that David has long since forgotten. Here's how a typical discussion around their issue of holiday travel plans goes:

MARGOT: We should start looking into plane tickets to go visit my parents this holiday season.

DAVID: thinking about their budget problem I was wondering if we can really afford it this year.

MARGOT: in anger My parents are very important to me, even if you don't like them. I'm going to go.

DAVID: I'd like to go, really I would. I just don't see how we can afford a thousand dollars in plane tickets and pay the bill for Joey's orthodontist, too.

MARGOT: You can't be honest and admit you just don't want to go, can you? Just admit it. You don't like my parents.

DAVID: There's nothing to admit. I enjoy visiting your parents. I'm thinking about money here, not your parents.

MARGOT: That's a convenient excuse. storming out of the room

    Even though David really does like to visit Margot's parents, her negative interpretation has become too powerful and he cannot penetrate it. What can he say or do to make a difference as long as she believes so strongly that he dislikes them? If a negative interpretation is strong enough, nothing will change it. In this case, David wants to address the decision they must make from the standpoint of the budget, but Margot's interpretation overpowers their ability to communicate effectively and come to a decision that makes both of them happy. Fortunately for them, this problem is relatively isolated and not a consistent pattern in their marriage.

    When relationships become more distressed, the negative interpretations create an environment of hopelessness and demoralization. Alfred and Eileen are a couple who were high school sweethearts, have been married eighteen years, and have three children, but they have been very unhappy in their marriage for more than seven years, in part due to the corrosive effect of strong, negative interpretations. While there are positive things in their marriage, almost nothing either of them does is recognized positively by the other, as seen by this recent conversation about parking their car:

ALFRED: You left the car out again.

EILEEN: Oh. I guess I forgot to put it in when I came back from Madge's.

ALFRED: with a bit of a sneer I guess you did. You know how much that irritates me.

EILEEN: exasperated Look, I forgot. Do you think I leave it out just to irritate you?

ALFRED: coldly Actually, that's exactly what I think. I've told you so many times that I want the car in the garage at night.

EILEEN: Yes, you have. But I don't leave it out just to tick you off. I just forget.

ALFRED: If you cared what I thought about things, you'd remember.

EILEEN: You know that I put the car in nine times out of ten.

ALFRED: More like half the time, and those are the times I leave the garage door up for you.

EILEEN: Have it your way. It doesn't matter what reality is. You'll see it your way.

    This may sound like a minor argument, but it isn't. It represents a long-standing tendency for Alfred to interpret Eileen's behavior in the most negative light possible. For the sake of argument, assume that Eileen is absolutely correct when she says that she simply forgot to put the car in the garage and that this only happens about one in ten times. Alfred sees it differently, especially in his interpretation that she leaves the car out mostly to upset him.

    A marriage would truly be in terrible shape if either partner routinely and intentionally did things just to frustrate the other person. Much more frequently, the actions of one partner are interpreted negatively and unfairly. This is a sign of a relationship heading for big trouble in the future. Negative interpretations are very destructive, in part because they're very hard to detect and counteract after they become cemented into the fabric of a relationship. This intractability has its roots in the way we form and maintain beliefs about others.

    Both solid research and experience tell us that people tend to see what they expect to see in others and in situations. In fact, we have a very strong tendency toward "confirmation bias," which consists of looking for evidence that confirms what we already think is true about a person or situation. We can be wrong in our assumptions, but we all have formed beliefs and expectations about why those we know well do what they do.

    For example, if you believe that your neighbor Bill can never say anything nice to you, then no matter what he actually may say, you will interpret his comments in light of your expectations. He could say, "Gee, you sure did a nice job on that project," and you might think to yourself, "He's only trying to manipulate me, what does he want now?" If Bill was sincere, your strong assumption will wipe out his good intent. No one is immune from looking for information to confirm her or his expectations about others.

    In the example above, Alfred has the expectation: "Eileen doesn't care one bit about anything that's important to me." This assumption colors the good things that do happen. In distressed relationships, partners have a tendency to discount the positive things they see, attributing them to causes such as chance rather than to any positive characteristics of the partner. Because of Alfred's negative interpretations, he attributes the times Eileen does put the car in the garage to his own action of leaving the door open and not to her intention to put it there. She can't win this argument, and they won't be able to come to an acceptable resolution with his negative mind-set.


We are not advocating some kind of unrealistic "positive thinking." You can't just sit around and wish that your partner would change truly negative behaviors, but you may need to consider that your partner's motives are more positive than you are willing to acknowledge.

    The bottom line with negative interpretations is that positive behavior is viewed negatively, and negative behavior is seen as an extension of character flaws, even if the actual intention was positive. We can show you how to work as a couple to overcome negative patterns such as escalation and invalidation, but negative interpretations are something you have to confront within yourself. Only you can control how you interpret your partner's behavior.

   First, you have to ask yourself if you might be being overly negative in your interpretation of your partner's actions. Second--and this is hard--you must push yourself to look for evidence that is contrary to the negative interpretation you usually take. For example, if you believe that your partner is uncaring and generally see most of his or her actions in that light, you need to look for evidence to the contrary. Does your partner do things for you that you like? Could this be because she or he is trying to keep the relationship strong? It's up to you to consider your interpretation of behavior that others may see as obviously positive.

    Of course, negative interpretations can be accurate. But suppose you begin to suspect that you're being hard on your partner. A third constructive step you might take is to ask yourself if you might have any personal reasons for maintaining a pattern of negative interpretation with your spouse. If you're being unfair, there must be some reason. Perhaps you learned a certain style of thinking growing up. Perhaps you have some deeper need to see yourself as the partner who truly cares about the relationship. Perhaps you want to feel sorry for yourself and think of yourself as a kind of martyr. This type of self-reflection can be difficult, but it may be very productive if you can discover why you might persist in seeing things negatively.

    In Alfred's case, he grew up in a home with judgmental, perfectionist parents. Negative interpretations come easily to him. It was not at all unusual for him to hear his father say, "If you cared at all about what's important to me, you'd have played better in that game." Like his father, Alfred developed a pattern of interpreting the motivations of others negatively unless they performed to meet his perfectionist standards. It doesn't matter how he came to think this way, only Alfred can really confront his internal bias against Eileen. The way he thinks is his responsibility, not hers. If he doesn't deal with this pattern--and Eileen doesn't deal with areas where she has similar problems--their marriage is certain to fail.

    As you work through this book and are considering positive changes in your relationship, make sure you try to give your partner the benefit of the doubt in wanting to make things better. Don't allow inaccurate interpretations to sabotage the work you're trying to accomplish.





Contrary to popular belief, positives in marriage do not slowly fade away for no reason in particular. We believe that the chief reason that marriages fail at alarmingly high rates is that conflict is handled poorly, as evidenced by such patterns as those described in this chapter. Over time, these patterns steadily erode all the good things in the relationship.

    For example, when couples routinely resort to escalation when problems arise, they may come to the conclusion that it's just as easy not to talk at all. After all, talking leads to fighting, doesn't it? When partners become more concerned with getting their own way, invalidation becomes a weapon easily taken in hand. Over time, no issue seems safe.

    Not only do many couples deal with issues poorly; they also may not set aside time to discuss them or come to any agreement about how they will be handled. Even in what starts out as the best of marriages, these factors can lead to growing distance and a lack of confidence in the relationship. Remember Jeff and Paula, earlier in this chapter? Though they are a genuinely caring couple, their inability to discuss tough issues--in this case, his anger--has caused a rift that will widen and perhaps destroy the marriage if nothing is done.

    When negative patterns are not changed, real intimacy and a sense of connection die out, and couples settle for frustrated loneliness and isolation. If you want to keep your relationship strong or renew one that is lagging, you must learn to counteract destructive patterns such as those we have described. Fortunately, this can be done. You can prevent the erosion of happiness in your relationship for the years to come.

    In this chapter we have described four patterns in handling conflict that predict future marital discord and divorce. We've made the point that certain ways of dealing with conflict are particularly destructive in a relationship. How can couples manage their tendencies toward destructive patterns and limit the damage they cause? We'll suggest a specific set of agreed-upon rules and strategies for handling conflict and difficult issues in your relationship.

    Keep in mind that most couples show some of these patterns to some degree. It isn't important whether you currently show some of these patterns as long as you decide to do something to protect your relationship from them. The exercises that follow are a first step toward doing this. We hope that these questions will shed further light on how your relationship is affected by negative patterns. That in turn will help you replace such patterns with the positive behaviors and attitudes we will demonstrate later in the book.

    Sometimes, the process of considering questions like the ones in the exercises and reflecting on where your relationship stands at this point causes anxiety or sadness. While it may not be pleasant to think about negative patterns, we believe that it will help you as you move ahead in this book and learn constructive ways to keep your marriage strong. In the next chapter, we deepen our discussion of how couples handle conflict, but show how the major difference between men and women in marriage is not how they handle intimacy, or how they make love--but how they make war.


Please take a pad of paper and write down your answers to these questions independently from your partner. When you have finished, we suggest that you share your perceptions. However, if this raises conflict, put off further discussion of your answers until you have learned more about how to talk safely about the tough topics in the next few chapters. Before getting into specific questions about the four negative patterns, consider the following one about your overall impression of how you handle conflict together: When you have a disagreement or argument, what typically happens? In answering this question, think about the four key patterns described earlier.


Escalation occurs when you say or do something negative, your partner responds with something negative, and off you go into a real battle. In this snowball effect, you become increasingly angry and hostile as the argument continues.

1. How often do you think you escalate arguments as a couple?

2. Do you get hostile with each other during escalation?

3. What or who usually brings an end to the fight?

4. Do one or the other of you sometimes threaten to end the relationship when angry?

5. How do each of you feel when you are escalating as a couple? Do you feel tense, anxious, scared, angry, or something else?


Invalidation occurs when you subtly or directly put down the thoughts, feelings, actions, or worth of your partner. This is different from simply disagreeing with your partner or not liking something he or she has done. Invalidation includes belittling or disregarding what is important to your partner, out of either insensitivity or outright contempt.

1. Do you often feel invalidated in your relationship? When and how does this happen?

2. What is the effect on you?

3. Do you often invalidate your partner? When and how does this happen?

4. What do you think the effect is on him or her? On the relationship? What are you trying to accomplish when you do this? Do you accomplish that goal?


Men and women often deal quite differently with conflict in relationships. Most often, men are more prone to withdraw from and women more prone to pursue discussion of issues in the relationship.

1. Is one of you more likely to be in the pursuer's role? Is one of you more likely to be in the withdrawer's role?

2. How does the withdrawer usually withdraw? How does the pursuer usually pursue? What happens then?

3. When are you most likely to fall into this pattern as a couple? Are there particular issues or situations that bring out this pattern?

4. How are you affected by this pattern?

5. For some couples, either or both partners tend to pursue or both tend to withdraw at the same time. Is that true for your relationship? Why do you think this happens?


Negative interpretations occur when you interpret the behavior of your spouse's much more negatively than they intended. It is critical that you open yourself to the possibility that your view of your partner could be unfair in some areas. These questions will help you reflect on this.

1. Can you think of some areas where you consistently see your partner's behavior as negative? What are the advantages to you in making these interpretations?

2. Reflect on this awhile. Do you really think that your negative view of your partner's behavior is justified?

3. Are there some areas where you have a negative interpretation, but where you are open to considering that you may be missing evidence to the contrary?

4. List two issues where you're willing to push yourself to look for the possibility that your partner has more positive motivations than you have been thinking he has. Next, look for any evidence that is contrary to your interpretation.

Copyright © 1994 Jossey-Bass Inc.,. All rights reserved.

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