Chapter 10. The Anatomy of a Marriage Problem


Chapter 10 - The Anatomy of a Marriage Problem

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[thrive_text_block color=”light” headline=”Chapter Summary”]This chapter is all about becoming better at solving problems like a leader in your marriage. You’ll learn how to evaluate the severity of a problem, identify its true source, and resolve it confidently and humbly.[/thrive_text_block]

Part 1:

Part 2:

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What if you had a simple formula to solve every single problem in your marriage?

That would be awesome, right? I know I’d love it if I knew exactly what to say every time my wife had a problem.

Unfortunately, I don’t have that secret formula and I can’t guarantee that you and your wife won’t ever get into a fight again sometime in your life, even after you’re finished reading this course! 😉

However, what I can do is this:

I can teach you a basic decision-making process to help you solve problems like a leader.

And, I can show you the exact thought-process I use to deal with problems in my own marriage.

The Anatomy of a Marriage Problem

This chapter is all about problem-solving. As you continue reading, you’ll learn the anatomy of a conflict. You’ll see that there are three stages in every marriage problem. They are:

  1. The Conflict
  2. The Response
  3. The Resolution & Apology

In this section, we’ll walk through every stage of a standard conflict and you’ll learn specific tactics and actions to help you make the best of a bad situation.

Like I said, this chapter isn’t a guarantee that you’ll never get in a fight with your wife again. Nor is it a guarantee that you’ll always know exactly what to say in every conflict. But, by following the steps in this lesson, each problem you face will have the potential to bring you closer to your wife instead of driving you further apart.

Sound good? Let’s get started.

Stage 1. The Conflict

The first part of any problem is the conflict. The conflict is the cause of the problem; it’s what’s behind the disagreement and/or discontentment in the situation. Identifying the conflict is hard, because problems inside a marriage are almost never what they seem on the surface.

Definition of ConflictIt’s important here to define exactly what conflict means in a marriage and how it comes about…

Something most people don’t realize is that conflict is a state of being. It’s not just defined as a one-time disagreement. If you look up conflict in the dictionary, you’ll see that conflict can mean “a difference that prevents agreement; disagreement between ideas, feelings, etc.” In other words, when you have a disagreement, you are in conflict.

Conflict can also be used as a verb, where it means “to be incompatible or to clash”.

The important point to see with these definitions is that conflict between two people happens when something is different on one side than it is on the other. The ‘thing’ that’s different could be ideas, an opinion, an understanding, priorities, resources, or anything else that one spouse has that the other doesn’t.

To put it more simply, conflicts lead to problems. When ideas, expectations, priorities or feelings are different on one side than they are on the other, that’s what causes conflict. You need to know the conflict – the source of the problem; what’s really wrong – before you can resolve the problem.

As the husband, your job in Stage 1 is to gather intelligence. You need to figure out the ‘thing’ that is different between you and your wife right now that’s causing friction in the relationship. You need to figure out the source and depth of the conflict.

Once you know the real source of the conflict, you’re ready for the next stage – the response – where you’ll clearly state the problem to your wife (or get her to state it for you). But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. One step at a time.

The Difference Between Surface-Level & Deep Conflicts

[thrive_text_block color=”blue” headline=”Example #1. Surface-Level Conflict”]Let’s say your wife asked you to do the dishes and you said you would, but you forgot about them and never did. She’s clearly annoyed. But, you do the dishes you forgot to do and offer to cook dinner tomorrow. Voila! She’s happy again! [/thrive_text_block]

Sometimes, the conflict is surface-level. In other words, you don’t have to dig very deep to find it… It’s sitting there in plain sight. MOST surface-level problems are as easy to resolve as they are to identify.
See what happened there?

In example #1, the conflict is plainly visible: Your wife had an expectation that you would do the dishes (because you said you would), but you didn’t.

The conflict here is because you had a one-time failure to meet her expectations (doing the dishes), so all it takes is a one-time exceeding of her expectations (cooking dinner) to solve the problem.

See how that works?

Since the conflict was rooted in a failure to meet expectations, it is be resolved by an equal restoration of those expectations. Easy, right?

Other times, though, the conflict will be hidden much deeper, and deeper problems are much harder to resolve quickly. I call these deep conflicts.

[thrive_text_block color=”blue” headline=”Example #2. Deep Conflict”]The exact same thing happens again – your wife asked you to do the dishes. You said that you would, but you forgot. Except, in example #2, this is the seventh time this month that you’ve made that mistake. You try the same solution – doing the dishes you forgot to do and offering to cook dinner – but this time your wife is so furious that she won’t even look at you for the rest of the night. [/thrive_text_block]

What’s the difference between example #1 and #2?

In example #2, the conflict isn’t because you forgot to do the dishes… The true conflict is that she feels like a low priority. She feels like she doesn’t matter to you and that you don’t respect her time.

In example #2, the conflict is rooted much deeper. It’s not that you’ve failed to meet your wife’s expectations one time… It’s that you failed to meet them so many times that she no longer believes she’s important to you. A relatively mundane-seeming problem – forgetting to do the dishes – has become a symbol of your priorities, and they are NOT in line with your wife’s.

Remember our definition of conflict from the beginning of the chapter?

In example #2, your wife’s understanding of your priorities is the ‘thing’ that’s different between the two of you, and therefore, there is a problem. A big one.

That’s also why when you suggest that this problem can be resolved by a one-time gesture, it only gets worse. Deep conflicts take much more time to resolve because they almost always involve a reestablishing of trust.

Keep in mind, this is a simple illustration and it usually won’t be that obvious, but the point is that you always need to investigate a little deeper into every conflict, even if it’s just to make sure that you are, in fact, dealing with a surface-level conflict.. It’s always better to dig too deep and find that you’re dealing with a surface-level problem than to not dig deep enough and find out you should have.

How to Identify Deep Conflicts

There are four easy questions you can ask yourself to determine whether the problem at hand is the result of a surface-level conflict or a deep conflict.

  1. “Is this a reoccurring problem?”In the example above, we saw that simply forgetting to do the dishes can lead to a much deeper problem if it happens enough times. The more often that the same problem comes up, the more it festers and hurts with each new time until it transforms into a conflict out of your control.
  2. “Is this problem affecting my wife’s trust in me or the marriage?”In other words, is this the kind of conflict that in any way makes your wife question whether she wants to spend the rest of her life with you?
  3. “Does this problem affect my wife’s livelihood or well-being?”You know what your wife wants out of life better than anyone… Is the conflict preventing her from living the life she wants to live? Is it preventing her from reaching a goal or achievement that she’s striving for? Is it preventing her from being content?Remember, well-being is an important area of husbandly leadership. If you fail to protect your wife’s well-being, she will lose trust in you as a leader.
  1. “Does this problem have to do with my leadership?”Again, remember the specific areas of leadership … If you find yourself severely lacking leadership in one of those areas, there’s a good chance that’s connected to any major conflicts in your marriage. Honestly, the answer to this question is almost always yes, even for surface-level conflicts.

If you can answer “Yes” to two or more of those questions (and remember, the answer to #4 is almost always “Yes”), then chances are you’re dealing with a deep conflict. Exercise caution.

Whatever the case, it’s your job to identify the source of the problem you’re dealing with – whether it’s surface-level or deeper – and then respond to it appropriately. Which brings us to…

Stage 2. The Response

As the husband, it’s your job to take the lead here and keep you and your wife on track for a solution. The Response is Stage 2 of conflict resolution… You have two core objectives in this stage:

  1. Clearly define and state the problem, both for your own benefit and your wife’s.
  2. Show your wife that you can take control of the problem like a leader.

Basically, this is where you get your wife on the same page with you, and then show her that she can trust you to resolve the conflict.

Let’s walk through both these steps to see what exactly you should be doing in Stage 2:

Step 1. Define the Conflict – What’s Really Wrong?

When defining the source of the problem – the conflict – always remember the words “clearly and early”

First, you need to find a way to state the conflict clearly so that you and your wife have an equal understanding of what’s really wrong.

Second, you need to state the problem early so that it doesn’t have time to spiral out of control.

Try to state the source of the problem in a way that simultaneously takes responsibility and doesn’t shift blame onto your wife. You also need to make it clear that your wife’s problems are your problems too.

Let’s go back to our dishes example. After all, it may be mundane, but it’s a relevant example that relates to a lot of men reading this. Most really big marriage problems start out small, but fester and grow bigger over time because they’ve remained unanswered.

So, your wife has just blown her lid. You forgot to do the dishes AGAIN and now your wife is extremely frustrated. If this were me, here’s what I might say to define the conflict:

[thrive_text_block color=”blue” headline=””] “Wow, Michele, that’s completely my fault. I never want you to doubt that you’re the most important thing in the world to me, and I’m truly sorry that I forgot to do the dishes. I know sometimes it seems like I don’t care about the commitments I’ve made to you, and I know there’s nothing I can say to make this better because actions are what really matter. But, I can tell you right now that this won’t happen again. I love you and I’m going to do a better job of showing you just how much.”[/thrive_text_block]

This is kind of a lengthy response, but you can see what I did there:

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I took responsibility for the problem – I didn’t try to say, “Well, you could have reminded me about the dishes,” or, “It’s just dishes…” I was clearly in the wrong because I made a commitment and failed to carry it out, so I immediately took responsibility.

I clearly addressed the root conflict – My wife was feeling unloved and under-valued. So, I addressed the root conflict head-on and clearly communicated how much I love her.

I made a specific apology – We’ll get more into this part in the next stage, but it’s relevant here because my own failure was the clear source of the problem, so an apology is part of the response.

Note that I didn’t just say “I’m sorry,” I specifically said what I was sorry for. This is something I’ve found especially important with my wife; she hates generic apologies. So do most women. If you’re going to apologize, make it specific.

We’ll talk more about when you should apologize (and when you shouldn’t), plus what specifically you should apologize for, later in this chapter and more again in Part 3.

I acknowledged that it’s too late to change the past – There are two reasons that I do this.

  1. First, it’s true… There’s nothing I can do to go back and change my previous actions.
  2. Second, just like I want to be results-oriented in what I say and do, I want my wife to be results-oriented too. I want her focused on what I’m going to do to fix the problem, not what I’ve done to cause <- This is important!

I made it clear that my actions are what need to change – Finally, this point is especially important when dealing with those really nasty, ongoing conflicts that seem to come up again and again.

Your wife hates hollow words. She doesn’t want to hear you say anything… She wants to see and feel your response. You need to acknowledge that – tell her you know that your words aren’t good enough, but that you’re going to do your best to make your future actions speak for themselves… And then make sure they do!


Obviously, your specific response will vary a lot depending on the conflict you identified in the first stage, but hopefully this example gives you some good food for thought.

Either way, the key takeaway from The Response stage is clearly defining the problem. That’s the most important part. Because one of two things happen when you clearly define the problem:

  1. You’ve correctly defined the problem, and now you can start working on a resolution. Or…
  2. You’ve incorrectly defined the problem, and now you saved yourself the time and effort of working on an unnecessary or unhelpful solution.

In both cases, you need to be sure that you’ve identified the correct problem before moving forward.

Despite my lengthy previous example, Stage 2 can be as simple as saying:

“Okay honey, can we agree that the problem is [insert conflict here]? What can I do to fix it?”

You can also say something like,

“I understand you feel [insert her feeling] because [insert source of problem]. Can we agree to [insert your solution]?”

We’ll talk more about what that solution might be in a sec’.

Step 2. Speak as the Leader, Not the Victim

Here’s the difference between a leader and a victim when it comes to conflict resolution:

  • A victim is someone who’s been wronged.
  • A leader doesn’t care if he’s been wronged; he’s 100% focused on fixing the problem.

This is an essential part of solving problems like a leader… Even when something bad happens to you or you’ve done something wrong, you must remember your role in the marriage. Avoid placing blame at all costs, at least if you care about finding a solution.

A victim gets stuck in the past.

A leader looks to the future.

This isn’t to say that you can’t show emotion or that you can’t be hurt by a bad thing that happened in your marriage. But you need to remain results-oriented… What are you going to do right now to fix this problem and move forward?

Stage 3. The Resolution & Apology

Finally, this is what we’ve been building towards. The Resolution – the answer to the problem. Here’s what we’re going to learn about constructing your resolution:

  1. Keep the focus on what you can control and change
  2. As always, speak your mind and say what you really want
  3. Understand if, when and how you should apologize
  4. Be persistent in your search of a resolution

Focus on What You Can Control

All the way back in Chapter 3 we talked about focusing on what you can control. Again, this is extremely important to remember when solving problems.

The simple truth is that there’s nothing you can do to control the way your wife thinks, feels or acts. You can do things to help her think or feel or act a certain way, but until you develop powers of mind control, you can’t reach in and force any change in your wife.

So, focus your response to The Conflict around what you can control.

For example, back when I was struggling to quit looking at porn (something we’ll talk more about in Chapter 14), my wife and I had many, many conflicts around my failures. My response was always centered on what I personally was going to do differently to change my behavior and stop giving into temptation.

Remember to Speak Your Mind

We spent an entire chapter learning how to speak your mind effectively. This is even more important when dealing with marriage conflicts.Speak Your Mind Reminders

Just to recap:

  • No insults
  • No criticism
  • No personal attacks
  • Avoid sarcasm
  • Take responsibility
  • Address the problem, not the person
  • Be positive
  • Be results-oriented
  • Say what you really mean

As you’ll learn below, an apology isn’t the answer to every problem. Sometimes there are things your wife will need to change too… When that’s the case, you need to find a way to communicate that to her without placing blame. This can only happen if you have the guts to speak your mind.

When & How to Apologize

[pullquote align=”right”]To be clear, it’s always okay to apologize as a way to express sympathy, like when you’re sorry that your wife didn’t get that promotion at work. But hopefully that’s commonsense.[/pullquote]

Because you’re here reading this, chances are good that there are a LOT of things you could have done differently in your marriage. That means there will almost always be some area of leadership that you’ve failed to live up to. That’s okay, but it means that even if your wife is the one pushing away from the marriage, you still have something to apologize for.As a general rule, you should only apologize when there’s something you could have done differently to prevent a problem from occurring.

Now, you may remember from the 9 Essential Traits of a Good Husband that a leader doesn’t beg. Let’s be clear: apologizing is not the same thing as begging. At least, it doesn’t have to be. An apology is purely an expression of regret for something that you did or didn’t do.

Now that we know when to apologize, there are two very important rules to remember about apologies:

[thrive_text_block color=”light” headline=”Rule 1. Generic Apologies are Worthless”]

Rule 1 is that a generic apology is worthless. As we said before, when you apologize for something, be specific. Apologize not only for the specific action that led to the problem, but also for the way that the problem made your wife feel. Apologize not just for the surface-level conflict, but for the deep conflicts too.[/thrive_text_block]

[thrive_text_block color=”light” headline=”Rule 2. An Apology Without Change is Worthless”]

Rule 2 is that an apology without a resolution is worthless. That’s why I group the resolution and the apology together here in one stage. An apology must come with some sort of meaningful change, otherwise what’s the point of apologizing?

Going back to our dishes example #2, you could make the best, most thorough, sweetest and most genuine apology in the world… But if you forget to do the dishes again the next day, it all goes out the window.

Your actions MUST support your apology![/thrive_text_block]

If At First Your Resolution Doesn’t Succeed, Try, Try Again

Sometimes your first resolution won’t work…

  • Maybe your wife will like your response initially, but she’ll change her mind over time…
  • Maybe your resolution is so far off that it actually makes things worse…

That’s okay! The important part is where you end up, not how you got there.

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First, I’d make the response I outlined in Stage 2.

Second, to immediately make up for the dishes I forgot to do, I’d cook a meal for our family. Either breakfast the following day or dinner the following night. This addresses the surface-level conflict because the task I’m doing to make up for forgetting the dishes is a bigger task than the one I forgot. But, this only addresses the surface problem, not the root problem, so…

Third, to fix the deep conflict (which is that my wife feels under-valued in the marriage), I’d make a daily habit of asking my wife if there’s anything I can help her with. At least once a day, I’d literally ask her the question, “Is there anything I can do for you?” Sometimes, it’s really that simple… This question lets her know that I’m willing to take time out of my day to make hers better.


To go back to our dishes example, there are a couple things I would do as my response:

The things I did here are really simple:

  1. I clearly defined the problem and made a specific apology to let my wife know that I recognize a need for change.
  2. I took immediate action to fix the problem at hand. Think of this like a sample resolution… It gives my wife a taste of the changes to come.
  3. I made a permanent change in my behavior to keep my wife and I on the same page. Remember, when you and your wife are on the same page, there’s a lot less room for conflict.

Finally, remember that these are things that I personally would do; I’m not saying you should take these exact examples and apply them to your marriage. They’re intended to give you insights into how conflict resolution can work inside a marriage.

Truth be told, there isn’t a strict formula for problem solving. It just doesn’t exist; sometimes you’ll just need to keep trying different things until something sticks. When you find what works, keep doing it until the conflict is fully resolved.

Every problem has a different conflict at its root and thus requires a different resolution. However, I hope that this chapter has given you some ideas for dealing with some of the problems in your marriage right now.

Conflict resolution is an enormous subject, made even more so by the many built-in intricacies of marriage. If you’d like to learn more, I highly recommend you read this blog post about The Thanksgiving Dinner Problem & How I Solved it – it’s a real-life example of a problem in my marriage and step-by-step what I did to solve it, complete with text messages between Michele and I.

[thrive_text_block color=”note” headline=”Key Takeaways from Chapter 10:”]

  • There are 3 stages in solving every marriage problem:
    1. The Root Conflict – How “deep” is this problem? Is it a surface-level conflict or a deep conflict? What about your relationship is affected by the problem at hand? The truth is that most conflicts go back to a failure of leadership.
    2. The Response – This is the first thing is you do once a problem arises. Once you know the root conflict, it’s time to openly define the problem. Take responsibility and make sure you and your wife both agree what the root conflict actually is.
    3. The Resolution & Apology – Leaders are made by their actions, not just their words. Apologize when there’s something to apologize for. But, regardless of how the conflict has affected you or who’s at fault, take responsibility for the solution. Remember to acknowledge that it’s too late to change the past, and stay results-oriented. What are you actually going to do or change to make the problem go away?

[thrive_link color=’blue’ link=’’ target=’_self’ size=’big’ align=’aligncenter’]Go to Chapter 11. Consistency & Being Decisive[/thrive_link]


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