Conflict is an inevitable part of any relationship, and how couples handle it can make or break their marriage. While it may seem counterintuitive, research by psychologist John Gottman suggests that avoiding conflict and maintaining a constantly positive demeanor can actually lead to long-term problems in a relationship. This is particularly true of couples that are “mismatched” in their handling of conflict. On the other hand, couples who are willing to engage in constructive conflict and discuss their differences openly may experience short-term discomfort but ultimately build a stronger, more satisfying marriage.

Gottman’s findings on marital dynamics

In his influential work on marital dynamics, psychologist John Gottman has shed light on the complex interplay between conflict engagement and long-term relationship satisfaction. Gottman and Krokoff (1989) found that when wives are always positive and agreeable with their husbands, it might seem to make things better in the moment. However, over time, this can actually lead to more problems in the relationship.

On the other hand, when both the husband and wife are open to discussing their disagreements and conflicts, it can be uncomfortable and cause dissatisfaction in the short term. But in the long run, being willing to engage in these difficult conversations can strengthen and improve the relationship. This was a shocking finding of longitudinal research: What might work in the short-term, is problematic in the long-term.

In essence, avoiding conflict by always being positive and compliant may provide temporary relief but can be detrimental to the relationship in the long term. Conversely, facing conflicts head-on may be challenging initially but can lead to a healthier, more satisfying relationship over time.

A case study: Dave and Abigail*

This dynamic played out in a dramatic fashion during an intensive couples therapy retreat I recently conducted. Dave and Abigail, both in their mid 60’s, had been married for 25 years – their second marriage. The couple came in to discuss a crisis in their marriage. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dave left the couple’s home for 3 months, and refused to talk about it with Abigail. After several weeks of silence, he would text cheerfully about everyday matters or complain about his physical ailments, but refused to discuss why he had left, and whether or not he planned to return.

Abigail was devastated by this betrayal. As she explained, she was fine with Dave’s leaving, but his sudden silence followed by chatty discourse was too much.

The fighting sample and Dave’s rage

One part of the weekend involved the couple providing a ten-minute fighting sample. The topic the couple chose was “why Dave left.” Dave provided a vague answer and said there was nothing more to say.

Abigail wasn’t having it. She peppered him with questions. He became defensive and looked at me as if to say “You see what I’m dealing with?”

He was clearly agitated that Abigail wanted more from him.

And then, as if suddenly given permission to speak, he began to segue to point out Abigail’s faults. For 8 straight minutes Dave unloaded a barrage of pent-up frustrations. He recalled past events that had upset him, some going back to the start of the couple’s relationship. He insulted her relatives, and her children. He had evidence to back it up, and described several incidents with dates and context.

Dave revealed that he felt he couldn’t express his true feelings without Abigail becoming angry or upset. Therefore, he was “forced” to keep his thoughts to himself. He pointed out what he had described as Abigail’s emotionality and uncontrolled rage. He felt that he would be punished by her if he dared speak out. He painted himself as a victim in his own home, left mute by Abigail’s emotional abusiveness. “It all got too much” he told her, “I had to get out.”

Abigail sat visibly upset by this sudden outpouring of suppressed anger and bitterness. The revelation that Dave had been withholding his true feelings for so long was just as disturbing to her as the content of his grievances. He spoke for almost the entire time, while Abigail sat in a state of shock.

Abigail’s response

Women are just as capable as men of being emotionally abusive. I’ve seen it many times. And I waited to see how Abigail responded to his accusations.

  • Would she accept responsibility for her actions?
  • Would she blame him for “making her” act this way?
  • Would she minimize or deny the impact her actions had on Dave?

Abusers accept no responsibility for their actions, and manipulate the abused by holding them responsible for the abuser’s behavior. An important indicator is the abuser’s capacity to accept responsibility and their willingness to change.

In the last two minutes, Abigail was forthcoming about the behavior she needed to change in herself. She agreed that at times, especially when she was clinically depressed, she was irritable and easily angered. She recognized that she could be harsh, in these dark times. She appeared deeply ashamed of her emotional dysregulation. She promised to learn better ways of reacting.

The couple had lost track of the topic of “Why Dave left,” as often happens in these fighting samples.

I stopped the recording, and asked them if this was a good example of the way their disagreements went at home. Dave said no. Usually he never gets a chance to speak, because Abigail spends her time yelling at him. Abigail said “no” as well. Most of the things Dave said to her, he had never told her before. But one thing was the same: they never reached any sort of resolution. She felt as if the tables get turned and her grievances become his grievances against her. She was visibly shaken.

Dave looked satisfied that he had finally dished it back to her.

A cathartic moment?

It might be easy to conclude that this was a cathartic moment for Dave. Catharsis is the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, his strong or repressed emotions. Was this an example? It would be easy to think so.

You would be wrong.

Dave was using the 10-minute fighting sample to “even the score.”

He wasn’t sharing as a way to self-disclose or talk about himself and his own deepest feelings and reactions. By sharing decades of grievances, he was now using this opportunity to demonstrate to me, the therapist, just how justified he was in leaving and in his refusal to talk.

His leaving in the way that he did, and his diatribe in the 10 minute fighting sample was less of an “opening up” and more of a “pushing away.”

The therapy continued

Throughout their relationship, Dave had prided himself on being “noble” by keeping his grievances to himself. He had created a “secret pact” that he expected Abigail to follow, without ever sharing it with her: “I won’t complain about what bothers me about you, and you don’t complain about what bothers you about me.”

He considered Abigail as “cruel” or “unkind” for speaking her mind and “hurting him so” by her “meanness.” Dave’s violated expectations for a pleasant and agreeable wife had set up a pattern that ultimately proved to be destructive to the longterm health of the marriage.

Early on, Dave was upset by Abigail’s complaining and withdrew. His withdrawal intensified her complaining, which devolved into criticism. Dave met her criticism with defensiveness. And the Four Horsemen created their inevitable escalation of conflict.

As he stopped communicating openly with his wife, Dave increasingly withdrew emotionally, sexually and spiritually. He hid his everyday thoughts and feelings. He created an invisible barrier between them that he felt was increasingly necessary and justifiable. Moreover, he secretly “punished” his wife for what he perceived as her “unfairness.” This further fueling his own bitterness and resentment. He rehearsed (ruminated) every betrayal, every injustice Abigail did to him. He knew the dates, the situations, what she said and how she had hurt him. And the more he withdrew, the more Abigail escalated. It was a vicious cycle often seen in these types of marriages.

What I came to learn was that given Dave’s history of an abusive childhood, even the mildest complaining from Abigail seemed caustic. He got defensive because he had expected himself to be “beyond reproach.” If he did anything “wrong,” he felt immense shame. To attempt to unconsciously counteract the shame, he became defensive and then withdrew. The last thing he wanted was to open up and disclose.

While the argument that preceded his leaving was trivial, it was the last straw for him in an ever increasing backdrop of a high-stress situation like a global pandemic.

Wives who were positive and compliant fared better in terms of their husbands’ concurrent negative affect at home and concurrent marital satisfaction, but the marital satisfaction of these couples deteriorates over time. On the other hand, the stubbornness and withdrawal of husbands may be most harmful to the longitudinal course of marital satisfaction.

Gottman, John M. What Predicts Divorce? (Kindle Locations 3746-3749). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

The importance of (even) conflictual communication

Dave and Abigail’s story illustrates the perils of suppressed conflict in marriage. While it may seem noble or polite to keep grievances hidden, doing so can create a pressure-cooker situation where resentments fester and grow over time. When these suppressed emotions finally do come out, they can be overwhelming and destructive to the relationship.

Gottman’s research suggests that couples who are able to function well with minimal conflict are those where both partners share an aversion to conflict and work together to avoid disagreements and let go of grievances. However, when there is a mismatch, with one partner consistently suppressing their feelings while the other is more open, it can lead to an imbalance and long-term dissatisfaction.

While constant bickering is certainly not ideal, neither is complete conflict avoidance when one wants to openly resolve differences and the other does not. Couples must find a middle ground where they can discuss their differences and work through problems together, rather than allowing them to simmer beneath the surface until they explode.


Dave and Abigail’s story serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of emotional withholding in marriage. By suppressing his true feelings for so long, Dave inadvertently caused more damage than if he had addressed issues as they arose. As Gottman’s research shows, a willingness to engage in constructive conflict can actually lead to greater understanding and satisfaction over time. Couples who learn to communicate openly and respectfully, even when discussing difficult topics, are more likely to build a strong, resilient marriage that can weather the inevitable challenges of life together.

*Names and identifying information have been changed.