Two Things You Need When You Disagree With Your Spouse

Do you and your spouse seem to argue about the same issues that never get resolved? You are not alone. Even good marriages have these kinds of disagreements. In reality, all marriages have challenges. You can’t live in close proximity with another human being and not struggle to love them; and it’s the same with them as they relate to you.

John Gottman has spent a lifetime helping couples grow in their ability to love one another. In his most popular book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, he focuses on very practical ways we can love our spouses and enjoy our marriages through what he calls Positive Sentiment Override, or PSO. The first three aspects of PSO are:

  • Enhance Your Love Maps: never stop learning who your spouse is.
  • Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration: make sure you focus on the positive more than the negative.
  • Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away: always try to tune into your spouse.

These first three enable a couple to build a solid friendship. Gottman has found that couples who have more positive than negative interactions and thoughts about their spouses are better able to deal with conflicts when they emerge.

Our research confirms the central role that bids play in a relationship. In our six-year follow-up of newlyweds, we found that couples who remained married had turned toward their partner’s bids an average of 86 percent of the time in the Love Lab, while those who ended up divorced had averaged only 33 percent (p.88)

With that foundation, Gottman says that you will more likely be able to navigate the challenges of marriage. He then proposes four things that are necessary for doing just that. Here are the first two:

Let Your Partner Influence You

In every relationship, there are power issues that must be acknowledged. In Genesis, immediately after the Fall, Adam and Eve entered into what some have described as the battle of the sexes. Genesis 3:16 says, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” This is describing sinful power plays between husband and wife as a result of the fall.

Gottman has observed and sees the importance of each partner sharing strengths and allowing each to influence the other:

In our long-term study of 130 newlywed couples, whom we followed for nine years, we found that, even in the first few months of marriage, men who allowed their wives to influence them had happier relationships and were less likely to eventually divorce than men who resisted their wives’ influence. Statistically speaking, when a man is not willing to share power with his partner there is an 81 percent chance that his marriage will self-destruct (p. 116).

Gottman goes on to say that no matter what your religious views are, mutual respect and learning from each other are necessary for a strong marriage. This is consistent with the appropriately understood meaning of Ephesians 5:22-33, which emphasizes serving one another within the context of marriage. The bottom line is mutual respect and a willingness to learn from one another is critical for a couple to enjoy their relationship.

Tim and Kathy Keller put it this way in their book, The Meaning of Marriage,

Whether we are husband or wife, we are not to live for ourselves but for the other. And that is the hardest yet single most important function of being a husband or a wife in marriage (p.50).

Solve Your Solvable Problems

At this point, he begins to address conflict. This comes on the heels of the first four principles. He isn’t avoiding the issue, he is saying that a couple’s ability to navigate conflict is equal to their friendship. But once he gets here, he spends four chapters providing some of the most practical advice and counsel I have read.

He first distinguishes between two types of conflict in a marriage,

Although you may feel your situation is unique, we have found that all marital conflicts, ranging from mundane annoyances to all-out wars, really fall into one of two categories: either they can be resolved, or they are perpetual, which means they will be a part of your lives forever in some form or another. Once you are able to identify and define your various disagreements, you’ll be able to customize your coping strategies, depending on which of these two types of conflict you’re having (p. 137).

Perpetual problems: make up about 69% of happy couples’ conflict (having kids, sex, money, housework, raising and disciplining kids to name a few). What happy couples are able to do is live with these differences and approach it with a sense of humor. In unstable marriages, these same problems eventually kill the relationship. Gottman calls this “gridlock.”

Solvable problems: make up the remaining 31% of conflict in a marriage. If not addressed in helpful ways, they can have a negative impact on the relationship, creating space for the four horsemen of the apocalypse (criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling). Here are the basic skills all couples need to deal with their solvable problems:

  • Distinguishing between perpetual and solvable problems
  • Soften your start-up
  • Learn to make and receive repair attempts
  • Soothe yourself and each other
  • Compromise
  • Process any grievances so that they don’t linger

In each of these items, you will find some practical skills that are easy to learn. He covers typical problems such as relations with in-laws, money, chores around the house, sex and becoming new parents.

I can’t stress enough how helpful these three chapters are!

Gottman and the Gospel

John Gottman’s research will serve you and your spouse well. If you are a helper/counselor, his material will serve well those you seek to help. I continue to find that true in my own marriage and those I minister to. Scripture confirms Gottman’s research and his astute observations. But the Christian has an additional perspective that is truly humbling, comforting and liberating. We have deeper themes of grace, mercy and forgiveness that are available to us in Christ. While skills are important, building skillful living on the foundation of the Gospel is transformational. While happy marriages are good, happy marriages where each spouse is being conformed into the likeness of Christ is much better.

Copyright © 2016 Timothy S. Lane


Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at CCEF in Philadelphia, PA (Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation). Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches.  For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.