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Marital Conflicts Can Be Positive

July 2022. Andre sat opposite me sipping his cup of tea; it was six months since he had been referred to me. He had finally called but said little over the phone, but then more pertinently, said nothing when I asked what he needed from me.

Introduced by a mutual friend, Andre sounded like he had checked out of his marriage but did not want to be the one to say it. Saying little was safe, but saying nothing was safer, for now at least.

I decided to invite him for a cuppa to listen to what had prompted his call. He opted for tea, “so that I can ask for a refill of hot water,” he told me. A cue that I might be sitting in the same spot for a while.

He brought me back to April and May of 2020, a month into a pandemic-driven ‘circuit-breaker’, the Singapore version of movement controls and safe management measures. His wife of eight years (then), Melissa and their two school-going children were also holed up in their 65 sqm flat in the northern suburbs of Singapore. By the end of April 2022, he realised that she was increasingly unhappy, while he was getting frustrated.

“It felt like she was a completely different person,” he shared. “I spent the entire April realising that the woman that I was living with was intolerable and insufferable. She was never like that before.”

The story literally went downhill thereafter. He shared that they fought so frequently he could not believe they actually survived to see the circuit-breaker lifted. At some point, it sounded like he was trying to convince himself that the children were the largest contribution to the problems he had with Melissa. “They had home-based learning, they needed attention while we needed to work, the computers could not seem to cope, the Internet was intermittent and slow… and we could not afford better computers at home. Melissa simply blamed me for not having enough. Not enough time, not enough energy, not enough money… I was not enough.“

“There were moments I wished I had caught COVID-19 so that I could be isolated from it all.” He shared this like it was a form of revenge, so that Melissa would have to solo-parent the kids, see to her own work being completed, and if he died, she could feel bad about it for a long time.

“COVID-19 ruined my marriage,” he finally proclaimed.

Really?” I looked up at him and held my gaze in silence while the world continued to spin around us; you almost could hear his heartbeat despite the mingled sounds of coffee being made, music, and competing conversations in a busy café.

“Or did COVID-19 finally expose the fault lines resulting from years of neglect in the marriage that you have both successfully covered up with work, life, children and even church?” I decided to prod a little.

“…and when COVID-19 safety measures descended upon your family, everything suddenly ground to a halt, and it felt like everything was suddenly peeled away, all the distractions that took you both away from your boredom, dissatisfaction and even loneliness at home.

“You were finally confronted with the reality of the state of your relationships, with Melissa and the children, who have now become ‘monsters’.” I continued. “…and if I were your lawyer, and Melissa’s divorce papers came served onto my desk, this may just be reversed, and I would be reading her particularising what a stranger she realised you were, and a ‘monster’ you have become too?”

Andre’s nostrils flared a little, and then his eyes squinted. I thought he was going to storm off. I was wrong - instead, I sat through the next few hours listening to Andre tell me about how they had met, how they dreamt of the loveliest family, how they had been inseparable, and how that changed.

When they got busy, and then busier with the arrival of the children, he found other things to get busier with too. Then the fights began, and the bigger fights.

Finally we landed on “marital dissatisfaction”. “But I could not show it,” he confessed. “We were a happy family at least in front of everyone, and I had no reason to be unhappy, or worse, discontented.”

Andre’s predicament is more common than you would expect. In my course of work (I deal with breakups), the last few years have seen an increase in divorce statements with a familiar refrain : “In or around April and May 2020, parties’ marriage broke down rapidly as the immense pressures of being confined in the Matrimonial Home due to COVID-19 restrictions mounted” or “During the COVID-19 circuit breaker season, parties’ fights and disagreements increased tremendously, resulting in the husband/wife feeling depressed and helpless due to the spouse’s abusive conduct towards him/her while being trapped within the confines of their homes”.

The circuit breaker was a tipping point for many couples, who also, incidentally or ironically, then had the time to take stock of their own relationships. Having no cafés to hop to over the weekends, no weekend brunches, no after-work drinks, they were forced to sit and examine, or even question if they could really live with the same person in marriage for the rest of their lives and accept that as their lot in life.

I even saw an increase in retirees coming in for divorces, telling me that they did not want to live the rest of their lives like this.

Things probably reached a boiling point and on 31st July 2021, the Singapore’s national daily broadsheet, The Straits Times, even reported that there was an increase in couples breaking up ‘amid challenges wrought by the pandemic’. An interesting headline that said everything and nothing at all.

Andre was in his late thirties, with young children. He made it obvious that he wanted to save his marriage, but I remained dissatisfied with his eagerness. “Why do you want to save your marriage…?” I questioned. “Because my family is important to me and I love my family,” he uttered. As though rehearsed, the scripted answer came even before I could finish my question.

“Then it is not enough to save your marriage, Andre.” I broke the news to him gently. “You need to tell me that you love Melissa, that’s why you want to stay married.” I disappointed him. “Jesus, the Bridegroom, would not tolerate being told by His Church that we loved salvation more than we loved Him. Or that we loved the fruits of our relationship with Him more than we loved Him.”

“You could still love your children even if Melissa was not married to you anymore,” I pushed my point a little harder.

It would have been cruel if I had stood up at that very moment and made a beeline for the exit. So, before I ended our time together, I sowed three ideas for Andre to consider doing, and challenged him to report back in 14 days if he saw any visible differences in how Melissa was relating with him.

1. Re-establish a Ritual of Connection with the Spouse

Now that the pandemic is almost over and life has somewhat resumed, couples do not spend long hours together anymore. For the likes of Andre and Melissa, this released the pressure valves and eased the pressure of being in each other’s presence all the time, where the flaws of each other compounded and suddenly became magnified.

Yet, not being in each other’s presence consistently does not adequately address the cause of such tension. The Ritual of Connection serves to help couples reconnect and emotionally ‘tune-in’ to the other’s moods, feelings and even grouses.

The goal here is about the couple’s sense of ‘we-ness’, where a couple re-establishes a sense of ‘alliance’ and ‘allegiance’. It is an emotional investment to listen empathically and actively, conveying to the other that you are both on the ‘same team’ despite having different ideas and opinions on many things. If Andre wanted a satisfying marriage, he needed a strong friendship and alliance with Melissa.

2. Repair First, Resolve Later

“Every time my wife and I fight, we get all riled up and have a good go at each other. After she fires her salvo, and I return mine, she will simply walk off, and head straight to the toilet.

She doesn’t go in there to cry. She washes it.

I was happy. I didn’t know why, but even the grouting on the floor and wall would turn sparkling white!

On our tenth wedding anniversary, we had dinner. I finally got around to asking her why she washed the toilet whenever we got into a fight. She mentioned that in doing so, she removed herself from the situation, and could manage her emotions better.

‘Using the toothbrush to brush each and every bit of grouting was extremely therapeutic,’ she said.

‘Especially when it was your toothbrush I used after every fight...’”

A constant picking on each other places spouses on the defence all the time. The intensity of the fight increases with the irritation of the parties. When words are carelessly exchanged, it can become difficult to take them back. Chapter 3 in the book of James tells us that the tongue is like a rudder, small but it directs a large ship, a small part of the body but it makes big claims.

So, do we keep quiet in a fight? If so, where is the “fair play”? I posit that it is precisely because the tongue has so much power that this force should be harnessed to a soothing and kind word, and word of appreciation, or better still, harnessed to be tamed.

A repair in a relationship is about shifting the focus from the fight back to the relationship. A repair attempt is an act of loving behaviour towards your spouse, that sets the relationship back on course. It conveys to your spouse that you are on the same side, regardless.

A repair comes in many forms. From flowers to chocolates, to ‘I am sorry, we could have done better’ or even a gentle touch or a momentary ‘time-out’.

I want to put the spotlight on the 20-minute ‘time-out’, where it provides a platform for parties to sort out the overwhelming emotions, increased heart rate, and hyped-up breathing.

A 20-minute “time-out” conveys to Melissa that during a quarrel, Andre continues to respect and honour her. By allowing a spouse needing a ‘time-out’ to have the time to self-regulate and manage their emotions, it conveys to them that they are important, and that the relationship is more important than their differences.

In a fight, a ‘time-out’ would allow both Andre and Melissa to take their minds off the conflict at hand, to regulate their emotions and thoughts. When Andre approaches Melissa thereafter, parties are physiologically calmer and more ready to take their repair further, words also become gentler and less stinging.

The proverbial ‘Don’t let the sun set on your anger’, is not a directive to sort out the issues before sunset or before you go to bed, but to sort out the anger. We often, but should not, conflate the two!

The key to a satisfying relationship is to start recognising that many conflicts may be pretty much irresolvable; and how couples shift their focus on repairing the relationship after a fight instead of being fixated on resolving the irresolvable. This recasts the spotlight on what the couple has, rather than what they lack.

I would also suggest that it takes a whole dose of humility to accept that many conflicts between spouses are irresolvable. Our conflicts stem from our values, how we were raised, our worldviews, our doctrinal or theological viewpoints, or even our political inclination or alignment.

The humility to indulge in the thought that we might actually be wrong, might set us on a path to ‘listen to understand (what the other person is saying)’, rather than to ‘listen to respond (often to prove them wrong)’.

Sometimes, Andre's biggest hindrance to repair may be his inability to indulge an argument (different from his), without accepting it.

Demands from children and chores, uncertainty about jobs and finances, fatigue from carrying all weighed on the shoulders of many couples who felt alone because the partnership was frustrated by unknown neglect and unspoken pains.

3. Conflicts are (often) fuelled by Unmet Needs

This statement made my new friend Andre sit up a little. During the COVID-19 restrictions, the need for space, privacy and alone time was severely neglected. As people were holed up at home, physically safe from the fast-spreading virus, psychological and emotional needs took a back seat and went largely unmet.

Demands from children and chores, uncertainty about jobs and finances, fatigue from carrying all weighed on the shoulders of many couples who felt alone because the partnership was frustrated by unknown neglect and unspoken pains.

Conflicts are opportunities for us to discover or rediscover our partners’ inner workings like values, beliefs or even styles by which they approach things. The key is to de-escalate well and in a timely manner, so that when conflicts are managed well, our fights enable us to know our partner better.

Our needs change and evolve with age, the passage of time and resources. Perhaps Andre needed to update himself on what Melissa needed now, and how he could participate (rather than be an obstacle) in helping her achieve it, while sharing the same with her.

Discussion of marital conflicts focusing only on styles of fighting is rather meaningless if the relationship does not have a sound foundation built upon a strong friendship, mutual trust and deep commitment to each other.

Andre, like the rest of us, must understand that many dangers as in those presented by COVID-19, are perhaps laid with plenty of opportunities too. Perhaps, and perhaps, we should not squander these opportunities by focusing on what may seem insurmountable but turn our attention to how we can reap

from it.

The grass is always greener where we water it.

Lai Mun Loon is a lawyer with DCMO Law Practice LLC in Singapore, a boutique law firm specialising in family law. He is also a trained (and qualified) social worker, marriage counsellor and a mediator who specialises in family disputes.

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