Making Spousal Relationships Work
by Dr. Gordon Davidson
Registered Psychologist Couples Clinic


The finding which underpins Dr. Davidson's presentation is that the best predictor of relationship success over time is the degree to which a couple is successful in managing conflict. One influential study compared a group of couples having taken training in conflict management, compared to a group of couples in a control group. Over a ten year period the couples receiving the training had a rate of divorce 50 percent less than the control group.

One model which sheds light on the importance of conflict management in relationships is known as the Preventive Maintenance Model for Couples. The model is cyclical and includes several phases. The first phase is that of 1) developing expectations. Two people get to know each other and, if each is satisfied that the other possesses certain attributes and values which are important to him or her, the relationship progresses. While some issues are dealt with explicitly, assumptions are also made.

Issues that often need to be clarified at this stage include the issue of togetherness/separateness, wherein the couple needs to agree on the degree to which they each will spend time together vs time for individual pursuits. The type of relationship each partner will have with same sex or cross gender friendships is also important. Degree of work involvement also can be an issue, especially for the self employed. Another important issue has to do with the respective relationship each person will have with his or her family of origin. Some individuals expect to have a very close relationship, and much contact with the family of origin, while others expect that a more firm boundary will be drawn between the relationship and the families of origin. Decision making and the relative influence each person has with regard to making choices is also crucial. Many couples operate on the assumption that there will be equality when it comes to decision making while other couples opt for one partner having more authority, especially in specific areas. Other issues needing attention are expectations related to sexuality, division of labour re: domestic duties, the management of finances, and parenting philosophy.

As each person's behaviour becomes relatively predictable to the other, the stages of 2) commitment, and 3) stability, emerge. Inevitably, however, one of the persons feels that his or her expectations have been violated. This is know as a "pinch". For many people, the pinch may go unnoticed within themselves if they are not accustomed to listening to their own feelings. Even if the person is aware of his or her feelings at this choice point, the option of not sharing the pinch is often taken. Many couples, particularly distressed couples, have been found to believe that conflict in a relationship is destructive or the sign of a weak relationship. The irony is that, in the avoidance of the issue through a desire not to "rock the boat", the risk to the relationship is heightened. A "critical incident" or "disruption" phase (4) occurs if the problematic behavior continues, and the unhappy partner can no longer cope with the discomfort. Feelings of resentment are shared at this time, and often not shared constructively due to the buildup of emotion.

At this important choice point, there are several alternatives: One option is to terminate the relationship if the violation is severe. As the disruption causes anxiety for the couple, it is very tempting to reduce the anxiety through another alternative knows as "premature reconciliation", wherein the resentful partner backs off or apologizes for getting upset. The person who has violated their partner's expectations may also make an apology with no serious intent to change his or her behavior. In contrast, if the violating partner takes responsibility for the behavior and makes a sincere commitment to reconfirming the original expectations, the aggrieved partner may be able to forgive their partner, and a period of more enduring stability may follow. In the "planned renegotiation" alternative, the disruption has made it clear that there was a lack of clarity around expectations, and therefore, that new or revised expectations needed to be negotiated. If properly negotiated, a new period of stability may be reached

Repeated disruptions without successful renegotiation leads to an increasing frequency and intensity of disruption "crunches", sometimes culminating in a resentful and perhaps abrupt termination. If violence is to erupt in the relationship, it is often at this point. Another option at this time is a "planned termination" where termination is the decision based on constructive dialogue. Other outcomes of unresolved conflict may unfold, through either an emotional distancing on the part of one or both partners, or an involvement with someone outside of the relationship.

It is therefore, important to renegotiate expectations in order to minimize disruption. A pinch is felt by an individual, whereas a disruption is felt by both. It is therefore important for the "pinchee" to disclose their discomfort to the "pincher" and to have the skills to do so in such a way as minimize a defensive response in their partner. However, few individuals will disclose their feelings unless they have the confidence that their partner has the skills to respond appropriately. Expressive skills as well as listening skills are essential for successful communication and negotiation.

Communication problems are the most often reported concern presented in couples counselling. At points of disruption, a therapist can be sought, who can a) coach the couple in the development of communication/conflict resolution skills, and b) mediate the specific issues of conflict.

Exploring the process of conflict resolution, Dr. Davidson' s doctoral research through UBC evaluated the effectiveness of 3 sessions of counselling with couples in conflict. 75 per cent of the couples improved in the areas of conflict resolution skills, presenting complaints, and relationship satisfaction. He has accepted an invitation to present his research at an international psychotherapy research conference in Portugal in June of 1999.

Click on diagram below to see model (adapted from Scherer and Glidewell, 1976).


maintenance modle for couples.JPG (443247 bytes)

Preventative Maintenance Model for Couples 

Back to Publications

Services | Seminars | Publications | Contact us | Home