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Feature Article



Marriage and Conflict:

How to Discuss Difficult Issues 1

Amanda Kowal, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Human Development & Family Studies, Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri

Howard Markman’s work on marital relationships has helped thousands of couples have healthy, long-lasting marriages (Markman, et al., 1993; Renick, Blumberg, & Markman 1992). Markman found that couples who follow his advice:

  • are 50% less likely to divorce than other couples
  • see immediate positive changes in their marriages

Conflict is an important and healthy part of all relationships. However, discussing problems can be challenging for couples. In order for conflict to be productive it is important for people to “fight fair”. The main goal of Markman’s rules is to make sure that people’s concerns are discussed in a productive way and that arguing doesn’t get out of hand.

Markman’s ground rules for couples when they discuss difficult topics:

  1. Don’t let arguments get out of hand. It’s not a good idea to worry about problems or concerns without talking about them. Over time problems can become harder to deal with. It’s also important to talk about only one or two issues at a time.
  2. Agree to a regular meeting to deal with relationship issues. Make sure this time is when you are both calm, not too tired, and not busy taking care of other things. Also be sure that you are not already in the middle of an angry argument when you have these discussions.
  3. Agree that either person can bring up issues at any time. But the other person can ask to reschedule the discussion if he or she does not feel that it’s a good time. The rescheduling should take place within a day or two.
  4. The Stop Action Rule. Either person can call a “time out” if the discussion isn’t going well and things are getting too angry or hurtful. Then try to get back together later and talk about the issue again. The Stop Action Rule should not be used simply because someone feels they are “losing” the argument, but because the arguing isn’t productive.
  5. Agree to discuss how you feel before rushing to solve the problem. Instead of jumping right to “this is the problem and this is what you are doing wrong”, think about what your emotions really are. Do you feel worried, scared, overwhelmed, underappreciated? Then describe these feelings before talking about how to fix the problem.

It’s not easy to follow these rules when you are angry or hurt. It helps to remember that your goal is to solve a problem, not to hurt the other person. Using these rules should help to make your discussions more productive. Further information about Markman’s PREP program is in the short article: Marriage and Conflict: How to Discuss Difficult Issues 2.


Markman, H. J., Renick, M. J., Floyd, F. J., Stanley, S. M. (1993), Preventing marital distress through communication and conflict management training: A 4- and 5-year follow-up. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 61(1), 70-77.

Renick, M. J., Blumberg, S. L., Markman, H. J. (1992). The prevention and relationship enhancement (PREP): An empirically based preventive intervention program for couples. Family Relations, 41(2), 141-147.



Last Updated 05/12/2009


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