Conflict Resolution in Marriage | Reunite Tool

Conflict Resolution in Marriage

It’s a matter of time before your partner upsets you. They won’t meet your needs, they’ll be insensitive, they’ll have annoying habits, and the list goes on and on. In addition, it’s a matter of time before you upset them for the same reasons. Therefore, learning what to do with negative feelings toward your spouse is imperative. Usually, there are two options. First, you can say nothing. However, if their upsetting behavior is significant, not saying anything will make you withdraw emotionally and physically, or you’ll become passive-aggressive by making rude or sarcastic remarks. Second, you can verbally assault them with criticism. However, that approach leads to them getting defensive and counter attacking. Also, criticism won’t motivate them to change, because they are too busy defending and counter attacking. It’s obvious we need a third approach to conflict resolution in marriage, and it’s called the reunite tool. The reunite tool is designed to help you constructively make a complaint in a way that will maximize your partner hearing your concerns and feel motivated to change. Marriage expert John Gottman points out the first few minutes of a conversation often dictate the rest of the conversation, underscoring the importance of de-flooding first before using the reunite tool. 

Flooded means your heart rate is elevated, and you are in fight or flight. Some of us flare up and become verbally aggressive (fight), and others of us shut down and retreat (flight). Both are counterproductive. Usually, one spouse gets into fight mode and the other gets into flight mode, which creates a vicious cycle. The more the fighting spouse pursues, the more the flighting spouse retreats. The more the flighting spouse retreats, the more the fighting spouse pursues. Having a conversation when flooded makes everything worse because couples make harsh comments that are later regretted.

Instead, couples need to take a break to de-flood before continuing the conversation. Some common symptoms to know you’re flooded include increased heart rate, tingling, flush with heat, difficulty concentrating, sweaty palms, etc. It’s important to tune into your body for your signals so you can tell when you are flooded. It’s also important to tune into your partner’s signals. If either of you get flooded, say “flooded,” then take a break to relax before continuing the conversation. The break to de-flood should be no less than twenty minutes and no longer than twenty-four hours. How long you need to de-flood will vary depending on the intensity of the topic and your flooding pattern.

Not going over twenty-four hours before continuing the conversation is important so de-flooding doesn’t turn into an excuse to avoid the topic. The break shouldn’t be under twenty minutes because it usually takes at least that long to de-flood. During the de-flood time, intentionally do whatever will lower your heart rate, such as taking a nap, being in nature, listening to music, reading a book, etc. Also, during the de-flood time, be thinking through the complainer steps in the reunite tool covered next.

Conflict Resolution in Marriage 

The Reunite Tool: complainer steps

1. Comment on their improvement

You need to begin with how your partner has improved in the behavior you’re upset about. If they haven’t improved with the specific behavior, zoom out and consider how their overall attitude has improved toward your concerns. If you still can’t find any improvement, you may skip this step, but the reunite tool goes much better if you begin with appreciation and praise on how they have improved in the behavior you want to complain about. For example, I was working with a couple who had been married for ten years and were both in their late fifties. The husband had hurt his wife’s feelings because he seemed indifferent toward spending time with her. However, he had been getting better at it over the past several months, but the last week, he seemed to regress, which hurt her feelings. So, she would begin by saying, “I want to start off by acknowledging how much you have gotten better at expressing interest in spending time with me. I’ve really appreciated your effort and I have noticed it.

2. Comment on how they may be innocent

The next step is giving them the benefit of the doubt. You may be assuming the worst in their motives and thinking they tried to hurt you purposely, which is very unlikely. Therefore, you must pause and consider all the ways they may be innocent. This doesn’t mean they were completely innocent for their hurtful behavior, but it does mean they probably didn’t do it with malicious intent to hurt you. Look at their circumstances and upbringing to discern what may have contributed to their hurtful behavior. So, to continue with the example above, the wife could say, “I know this past week you’ve been consumed with the golf tournament and your brother coming into town and I know quality time wasn’t a value you were raised with.”

3.Comment on your part

The first thing to consider is did you do anything that may have influenced your partner’s hurtful behavior. For example, perhaps it hurt your feelings that your partner avoided conversation but it’s partially because you have a tendency to be long-winded. Also, when we get upset with our partner, it usually says something about us. A great question to always ask yourself is “What does it say about me that I’m upset with them about that?” You may have a sensitivity toward your partner’s behavior because it rubs up against a value from your past. For example, if you have a value of feeling heard because growing up you felt heard frequently, you may get particularly upset when you don’t feel heard in your marriage because it rubs up against that value. Also, you may have a sensitivity toward your partner’s behavior because it rubs up against an emotional wound from your past. With the couple mentioned previously where the husband didn’t spend enough time with his wife, her dad never made time for her growing up, which created an emotional wound. Therefore, when her husband seems indifferent toward spending time with her, it activates that emotional wound from her upbringing, which intensifies her reaction. To clarify, even though it’s activating her previous wound, that doesn’t mean her husband hasn’t done anything wrong. It just means her reaction toward his behavior is probably stronger than it would be if she didn’t have that emotional wound. Therefore, she could say something like “I know my dad never spending time with me growing up is a wound, and it can intensify my reaction to you not spending time with me.”

4. Say your complaint

Now that you’ve covered steps one through three, you’re ready to say your complaint. If you skip these steps and start out with a complaint, you can guarantee your partner will become defensive and comment on how they have gotten better, how it wasn’t their fault, and how it was actually your fault. Therefore, if you begin with those three items first, it will make them feel validated, which will optimize their receptivity to your complaint. Now, there are a few guidelines for making the complaint. First, you’re not allowed to say “you,” because it’s accusatory, and you can’t say “always or never,” because they are generalizations. Not being allowed to say “you” in a complaint can be tricky and may need some extra practice. For example, instead of saying “You never listen to me,” you could say, “I rarely feel listened to.” Or instead of saying “You never pick up after yourself,” you could say, “Things are left out frequently.” Also, the moment you say always or never, your partner will think back to the exact moment when what you’re saying wasn’t true.

Next, you must identify your tender underbelly under the anger. Anger is almost always a secondary emotion, and underneath it is something tender, such as hurt, sad, lonely, insecure, scared, etc. If you express anger, your spouse will feel attacked and become defensive, but if you express your tender underbelly, it will make them feel more empathetic. Last, identify what core need is getting stirred up for you under this conflict in your marriage. As mentioned previously, core needs can include wanting to feel heard, supported, connected, adored, prioritized, respected, etc.  So, a complaint for the woman in our steps above could be, “This past week, I felt sad and lonely because spending time with me didn’t feel like a priority, and it tapped into my core needs of wanting to feel connected and prioritized.”

To put it all together, the woman in the example above could say, “I want to start off by acknowledging how much you have gotten better at expressing interest in spending time with me. I’ve really appreciated your effort, and I have noticed it. I know this past week you’ve been consumed with the golf tournament and your brother coming into town and I know quality time wasn’t a value you were raised with. I also know my dad never spending time with me growing up is an emotional wound and can intensify my reaction to not feeling prioritized. But this past week I felt sad and lonely because spending time with me didn’t feel like a priority, and it tapped into my core needs of wanting to feel connected and prioritized.”

The complainer steps provide a constructive way to express your complaint, while maximizing the chances of your partner hearing you and feeling motivated to change. Now, this doesn’t mean you should start making daily complaints, because then you will appear hypercritical and like nothing is ever good enough. However, one to two complaints per week using the complainer steps is reasonable.

The Reunite Tool: listener steps

1. Summarize & 50% rule

The first thing to do once your partner is done with their complaint is summarize what you heard to be sure you understood it correctly. If you don’t have the complaint correct, the rest of the steps on how to respond well won’t be effective. So, the husband in the previous example would summarize the complaint by saying “Overall you felt sad and lonely last week because you didn’t feel like I made you a priority and that tapped into your need to feel connected and prioritized, is that right?” Next, spend time reflecting on the 50 percent rule. The 50 percent rule says you probably can’t take 100 percent ownership for your partner’s complaint because they may be projecting some of their issues onto you plus you probably had some valid reasons for your behavior that wasn’t your fault. However, you probably also can’t take zero responsibility for their complaint. Therefore, you’re searching for the 50 percent, give or take, you can take ownership for.

2. Own your part

Once you’ve identified the kernel of truth in the complaint you can own without excuses, begin by making an ownership statement that starts with “I own that I ……” So, the husband who didn’t prioritize time with his wife could say “I own that I’ve had a tendency to not prioritize quality time together and I own that I could have checked in with you more last week.” Watch out for the temptation to add the reasons for your behavior you’re owning. Doing so will sound defensive and water down the power of your ownership. There’s something extremely healing to hear your partner say what they own without excuses. This is also your opportunity to become refined as discussed in Marriage Step #1. Your partner’s complaint is probably highlighting a blind spot or growth area for you that if addressed, could make you into a better person and partner.

3. Empathize

Next, provide empathy on how the part you’re owning probably made your partner feel. A great empathy statement is “I can see how my behavior of ____ would have made you feel ____.” As a recap, empathy is seeing the situation from your partner’s perspective. You may personally disagree with how your behavior made your partner feel, but you must consider the emotional wounds and values from their upbringing, their temperament, insecurities, stressors, current values, and marital needs. When considering all those variables, you’ll begin to see how your behavior made them feel a certain way, and that’s where true empathy comes from. Responding with empathy is like rubbing salve on their emotional wound. If you get defensive, it’s like throwing salt in it. So, the husband in the previous example could say “I can see how me not prioritizing our quality time and not checking in with you last week would have made you feel sad and lonely.”

4. Apologize

After you’ve provided ownership and empathy, it’s time to make an apology. The apology is only on the kernel of truth in the complaint you’re owning so that it’s sincere. It can be hard to forgive your partner until you hear them say they are sorry. However, it can be hard to make an apology for something you don’t feel like you did. Therefore, it’s important to only focus on the part of their complaint you’re fully owning and that’s what you apologize for. So, the husband in the above example could say “I’m sorry that I’ve had a tendency to not prioritize our quality time and I’m sorry I didn’t check in with you more last week.”

5. Make amends

Now that you’ve taken ownership for your part, provided empathy, and given an apology, it’s time to make amends. Making amends is where you suggest what you could do to make your partner feel better. The goal is to provide emotionally corrective experiences to help your partner heal from your hurtful behavior. So, the husband in the example we’ve been using could say “How about I stop work early tomorrow and plan a special evening for us together, how would that be?” You also want to ask your partner if they have any other suggestions they would prefer. So, the husband would end with “What else would you like for me to do?”

To put it all together it would sound like this, “Your complaint is I hurt your feelings last week by not spending enough time with you and it made you sad and lonely and tapped into your core needs of wanting to feel prioritized and connected. Is that right?” (She says yes then he takes a few moments or longer to reflect on the 50 percent rule to discern what part of the complaint he can own). Then he says “I own that I’ve tended to not prioritize quality time in our relationship and I own that I could have checked in with you more last week. I can see how my behavior of not prioritizing quality time and not checking in with you would have made you feel sad and lonely. I’m sorry I’ve had a tendency to not prioritize quality time and I’m sorry for not checking in with you last week. How about I end work early tomorrow and plan a special evening for us? How would that be? What else would you like me to do?”

conflict resolution in marriage

Once you have finished the listener steps, if you have a complaint to make in response do it using the complainer steps while your partner responds with the listener steps. Keep doing this back and forth until you both are finished. If either of you become flooded at any time during the steps take a break to relax then come back when you both are calm and ready to continue. 

Dr. Wyatt Fisher

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Leave a comment below on how this approach could transform conflict resolution in marriage.


  • Dr. Wyatt

    Hello S, your experience is very normal. When our partner doesn’t respond well to our hurt feelings it often makes things worse. I would recommend you both make a list of resentments you have toward one another then read through this article on the Reunite Tool together. Then, decide together how often you both are willing to work through your resentments using the tool. If this doesn’t go well, sign up to work with one of our relationship coaches who can facilitate. Relationships can’t move forward when there’s unresolved resentment.

  • S

    I have a question, I noticed you said this should only be done one to two times a week, does this also apply to people that have resentment towards their partner so maybe more negative feelings because of some past events that have hurt them and haven’t been dealt with properly , I mean my partner does try to reconcile when We have conflict, usually in indirect ways by showing affection, this is his way of repairing things, but I feel like I need him to listen to me, apologize and make amends, sometimes he does apologize, but we rarely have productive conversations about our issues where I feel really understood and this makes me repeat things and it repels him. I find that recently I have been talking about issues to try to get resolution quite alot maybe everyday, and my partner dislikes talking about conflict they usually prefer avoiding it so they naturally say things like forget about it or are you still thinking about this, which usually makes me feel guilty for having those feelings and also increases my tendency to keep talking about those issues everyday, I dont do it all day long its just once a day or twice, and I try to make it quite brief without blaming and I try to implement some of the tips from the unite tool. However, even though my partner does not intend to dismiss my feelings, his response is usually defensive, he feels like I criticise him alot even though im complaining not criticising and I try to do it nicely, he does not like that I talk about our issues quite often, and feels like it makes him upset and most of the time I get the feeling that my needs or feelings are not heard and changes are not exactly made, I still haven’t spoke to him about the unite tool only briefly, so I thought maybe if I explain to him how to do the lister part he might try to to listen to me the way I need him to, I usually feel unheard when I speak about issues, and even blamed or like I am wrong, so this makes me feel unlikely to heal those issues and feelings, he has been better at listening to me and have apologized in the last few days he has been trying to be better at this, but still needs to learn how to respond in a non defensive and more understanding way to my complaints as he does have that tendency and even though I know he is trying to fix it, I usually end up feeling unvalidated, there has been alot that happened the last month or two and we had alot of conflicts that were not resolved properly, so even though I have been trying to feel better and forgive, I still have resentment or negative feelings that come and go during the day and they persist especially when I dont feel heard after talking and that my husband doesn’t like to hear me talk about those issues, I find myself going back to him and repeating myself and im trying to deal with it properly, how should I go about that?, should I only talk about our issues one to twice a week, even though I think about them daily and I still feel hurt, I tend to speak to him daily to not allow my feelings to fester, yet I dont always feel completely relieved after talking about them, but the last few times I have felt much better because he has been trying to be more understanding and he apologises sometimes, other times he explains his point of view without comforting me first. He still does some Small things that upset me almost daily, with alot of other things that are positive, but I tend to talk to him everyday as soon as he upsets me I would usually tell him by the end of the day about it, and he mostly feels annoyed by that and would rather I forget about it instead, so whats the right way to deal with this, and what about all the things that happened in the past two months, we have talked about a few, I get relieved and then my negative feelings come back, because of something he said or did or even his reaction towards my resentment or hurt feelings makes me feel like I cant safely express what I feel and need, and actually get the kind of response I need, what do I need to do to get what I need from him, I understand I need to be patient for changes to happen and that because this is his tendency it might take time, but its just that everytime I feel like talking to him about things, he usually makes me feel like I shouldnt be feeling this way and this has been like this ever since I have known him I believe, we never really had a good way of dealing with hurts, so they have festered and to me his response towards my negative feelings makes me feel like things are not really changing.

  • Dr. Wyatt

    Super Toni! Yes, this conflict resolution tool is designed to reduce the chances of your partner responding with defensiveness to your complaints.

  • Toni

    Dr. Wyatt I came across this article because I want help on how to respond to my husband correctly when his behavior hurts my feelings or makes me feel sad. This information really help me to understand why my husband would get so defensive when I would “complain” to him about something he did or didn’t do. I am eager to use this technique to express my complaints and I am expecting positive results. Thank you Dr. Wyatt.

  • Dr. Wyatt Fisher

    HI Griselda, very sorry to hear of the betrayal, which creates significant resentment. What many partners do in your position is make a list of questions they want answered and request their partner to be connected to a lie detector test while being asked. If their partner doesn’t cooperate then they get a separation.

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