Relationship Insurance Part 1 of 3: How to Grow & Maintain Love During Conflict

Relating Well

Conflict can either strengthen or destroy a marriage.


The way couples handle conflict is the most significant aspect of being successful or unsuccessful in keeping the marriage together.  Those who handle differences appropriately will be able to make it through life with success and an intact marriage. If, however, they cannot deal effectively with the differences which plague every couple, they are more likely to divorce.

Couples come to a critical path in the road of marital togetherness. If they travel along the positive path, their marriage will grow. If not, it will more likely dissolve. That fork in the road can be called attack or attend.


If the mates personally attack each other, the marriage is in real danger. If, however, they find a way to attend to each other when disagreements arise rather than attack, the marriage will grow.


Some people were reared in homes where verbal attacks were the only way to resolve conflicts.  When a disagreement arises, they hone their verbal thrust and go in for the kill. The purpose of a functional partner is not to hurt, however, but to get a loving response.

An attack actually prevents loving relationships from occurring. When it is the only way we know, we do it automatically. John Gottman’s research looks at the changes in a mate's heart rate, breathing, and other physiological manifestations of anxiety during a conversation.

Other researchers have done similar studies but with less reliable self-reports and clinical observations. Thus, Dr. Gottman was very accurate in predicting present and future problems. After years of research, he and his colleagues gathered data from thousands of marriages and correlated it with marital satisfaction. They know when a couple is in trouble. Their insights can be used to prepare couples to avoid the attack marriage and emphasize attending skills.

The following seven-point scale, adapted from Gottman’s research, can be used to assess the level of marital distress and danger. The scale is useful for understanding how to assess your level of resiliency and in understanding and handling the inevitable conflicts that occur in marriage.


Cycle of Conflict

Level of Interaction

Resulting Physical Symptoms

1.  Contented:  At peace with others.     Thinking and feeling calm 1.  Relaxed.  Male heart rate – 72 Female heart rate – 80
2.  Complaint:  A specific behavior     Healthy activity of “I" statements (I want, I think, I don't like, etc.). 2.  Slight anxiety & fear.  Increased Heart rate-BPM & breathing, muscles tense. Minor Fight/Flight Response.
3.  Criticism:  A vague blaming. "You" statements.  Focus on person not behavior.  A flawed personality.  Global statements.   Somewhat attacking. 3.  More anxiety and fear.  High blood pressure & breathing rate, muscles tight, blood sugar, and eyes dilated, reduced digestion.  Feel attacked.
4.  Contempt:  Personal insults, shaming attacks on the character sense of self and identity. Opposite of admiration, mocking, lack of respect. 4.  High anxiety and high stress. Feel heartbeat. Shallow breathing, fight/ flight response on alert, hyper vigilant. Reactive to threat.
5.  Consuming defenses:  rejects all communication.  Attacks the mate. 5.  Severe anxiety. Can’t think. Feelings rule. Fight/Flight.  Shaking or trembling.
6.  Crushing reaction, withdrawal, or aggressive pursuit of the other: Cycle of miscommunication/misunderstanding. 6.  Emotional flooding: Chronic state of hyper vigilance and hypersensitive self-talk.
7.  Complete isolation, withdrawal:  Problem is impossible to resolve,  talking is useless,  feelings of hopeless, overwhelmed. 7.  Too painful to interact with rational discourse.  Filled with constant thoughts of attack and condemnation. Must either stay away from the person or fight them with bitterness. Divorce, church splits, etc
© Gary Sweeten, Sweeten Life Systems Adapted from John Gottman, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Simon and Schuster.

During an argument or conflict with your spouse or loved one, do you respond with Contentment, Complaining, Criticism or Contempt? Related Posts: Relationship Insurance Part 2 of 3 - Conflicts are Inevitable, but Break-Ups are Optional Relationship Insurance Part 3 of 3 – Oh No! We’re at Stage Four and Beyond. Now What?