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Magnetic Partners

Discover How the Hidden Conflict That Once Attract

About The Book

Do you and your partner argue about the same things over and over again? Are you often confused about why your partner is so angry with you? Are things getting worse and worse even though you’ve tried everything you can think of to make them better?

In this breakthrough guide to repairing romantic relationships, therapist and marriage researcher Dr. Stephen Betchen presents a powerful new explanation of what leads to this kind of escalating conflict in couples and how you can repair your relationship and find a whole new level of happiness. Based on his extensive experience as a couples’ therapist, Dr. Betchen has discovered that the prevailing idea that opposites attract is wrong. Instead, one of the strongest forces that attracts people to one another is that they share a hidden, inner conflict in their lives—an unconscious struggle within themselves that each of them developed growing up—which he calls a "master conflict."

The fact that a couple shares a master conflict acts as an almost magnetic force of attraction, but, over time, master conflicts often begin to push a pair apart—many of the very things you most appreciated about each other start to grate on you, producing increasing hostility. The good news is that by identifying the master conflict that you share, you and your partner can take the steps to break the cycle of fighting and come to a new place of understanding and happiness in your relationship. Often, just the realization that you have this hidden conflict acts as a powerful cure, allowing you to appreciate each other once again and to be empathetic about the things that have been irritating you both.

From his years of work with couples, Betchen has identified the nineteen most common master conflicts—such as getting your needs met vs. caretaking; giving vs. withholding; commitment vs. freedom; power vs. passivity—and for each he provides vivid stories of couples who have struggled with them, as well as simple tests that help you to:

Identify the core master conflict that is causing your relationship problems

Understand the origins of your conflict and how it drew you to your partner

Diagnose how the conflict is now pushing you apart

Come to new terms with the conflict to save your relationship

As Dr. Betchen writes, knowledge of a master conflict is power, and Magnetic Partners is an empowering guide that will help you not only to identify and control your master conflict, but also to bring your relationship to a new level based on deeper understanding, ultimately leading to greater fulfillment and long-term resilience.





If there’s one thing I’ve learned about relationships in my thirty years of doing couples therapy, it’s that they’re complex. We’d all like to think that we fall in love, choose a life partner, and then the rest is as effortless as riding a bike. But the truth is that relationships require a constant job of adapting, compromising, and keeping pace with our partners so that we avoid growing apart—and that is the easiest piece of the puzzle. The hardest is usually beyond our level of consciousness: I’m talking about knowing ourselves. We must start out with personal insight and an understanding of how we were influenced by our pasts. What’s driving us to do the things we do? What’s compelling us to feel the way we feel? And, as I’ll encourage you to explore as the special focus of this book, what inner conflicts are a constant struggle for you?

Some people may be in relationships that are all smooth sailing. Maybe the stars are aligned in their favor, and these couples have somehow managed to control their conflicts. It could also be true, however, that they’ve decided to settle, not wanting to rock the boat because they don’t believe that a better deal awaits them. And, of course, there are those who are afraid to change. After all, change is hard, and for most of us, relationships are tough to manage. But I don’t say this with pessimism. I’m actually a confirmed optimist, and a big believer in relationships. I’m stressing the difficulty involved because in my practice I’ve seen too many couples give up too easily on their relationships. I’ll never forget one newlywed who decided to divorce her husband after six months because she felt that a “normal marriage should be easy.” Again, not true. To achieve relationship success, you’ve got to be patient, be committed, and work hard. In his book Way of the Peaceful Warrior, Dan Millman wrote: “Stress happens when the mind resists what is.” In Magnetic Partners, we will face reality together.

Through the course of this book, I will share with you my strongest conviction as a couples therapist: an underlying, largely unconscious conflict is responsible for most of the truly intractable relationship problems I’ve helped couples through. Affairs, chronic fighting, troubled sex lives, and most dating dilemmas, I have found, very often can be traced to what I have come to call a “master conflict,” a powerful conflict that largely controls your relationship. What’s more, this same master conflict has very often also acted as a powerful bonding force in the relationship. The great irony about master conflicts is that they are often the underlying force of attraction that brought a couple together with an almost magnetic power, and yet, just as often, the same force is pushing a couple apart.

What is a master conflict? Think of it as an unconscious struggle within yourself—like having two politicians inside you, arguing about some issue, and you just can’t make up your mind as to whom you should believe. The especially tricky thing about this struggle is that one politician is not necessarily right and the other wrong. In this struggle, neither side is necessarily better than the other. But even in those situations when one side does seem to be the more appropriate choice, those two politicians in your head are both scoring points, enough to confuse you—blurring the difference between right and wrong and making it even more difficult for you to make a decision. For example, you may be conflicted about being either powerful or passive in your relationship: being in charge is gratifying but too much work; being passive leaves you with little responsibility but too little control. Or you might be conflicted about meeting your needs: taking care of yourself may feel good but evoke guilt; taking care of your partner may be the right thing to do but may also lead to too much responsibility.

Trying to reach a compromise with your master conflict is usually no easy task. Why? Because compromise means change, and change usually brings with it the anxiety of taking on the unknown and the depression that comes with a loss of the way things were. But there is good news: these feeling-states are usually temporary, so if we can tolerate them, they may lead us to a much better life, one that we never could have imagined. What I’m saying is that underlying fear—the fear of anxiety and depression—makes it difficult for us to choose one side over the other or to strike some sort of compromise between the two sides. Shifting back and forth helps us to avoid the pain that might come from making a choice. Why take charge in your relationship if you fear having too much responsibility? Why be passive if you fear being controlled? Master conflicts can cause us pain, but to avoid discomfort we prefer not to challenge them; we prefer to “stay the same without the pain,” and who can blame us? We may seek help to stop the suffering but not to change the internal master conflict. I’ll show you what I mean.

Take the case of Seth, who at age fifty-five was still a bachelor, though in a painful, dead-end relationship. He couldn’t move on because a master conflict had a tight grip on him; he was torn by the inability to decide whether to commit to a lasting relationship or to remain free of the responsibilities that such a relationship requires.

He slowly shuffled into my office one day and began to tell me his story in a soft, monotone voice. He was dating Denise, thirty-nine, a tall, lanky graphic artist whom he wanted to marry. But Denise gave Seth numerous signs that she wasn’t genuinely interested in him—canceling dates at the last minute and acting preoccupied when they were together. Most of us have been subjected to indifference at least once in our dating careers; it’s no fun at all. It’s also not at all hard to pick up on. Seth’s friends could clearly see the truth; they had told him that they felt Denise wasn’t the least bit interested in him, pointing out that she saw him only when she had nothing else to do and that she refused to have sex with him. But Seth had brushed off their comments. Then one night his cousin Barb joined the happy couple for dinner, and afterward she told Seth: “There’s no way that girl likes you. My God … she seemed more interested in watching the restaurant television than hanging out with you. Women know women … you dip! Forget about her.” That hit Seth hard, and shortly after this he came to see me.

As I talked with Seth, I quickly discovered that he wasn’t at all clueless about how Denise was treating him. The real problem was that her indifference actually suited one side of his master conflict just fine. He was under the sway of the commitment vs. freedom conflict, which led him to commit to distant and “unavailable” women and to reject other, more available, female partners, thereby guaranteeing his freedom. It was his unconscious way of not having to choose between commitment and freedom.

When I pointed his conflict out to him, he resisted the notion. “Listen, I want to be married,” he said to me, “I’d like nothing better. I’d love to marry Denise.” But, like most people who are in the grip of a strong conflict, Seth blamed his partner. “Denise keeps her distance: I just can’t pin her down,” he said. Okay, but even when I advised him of his futile situation, he refused to move on. His excuse: “I’ll never find another woman my age as hot as Denise.” Our master conflicts are powerful motivators for rationalization. The point is that Seth chose to continue a painful charade with Denise rather than give her up and risk commitment with a more eligible partner.

Some people liken the struggle to make a choice—the key characteristic of master conflicts—to being on a seesaw with an issue at each end. When you lean toward choosing one side of the conflict, the seesaw is weighted toward that end; when you lean toward the other side of the conflict, the seesaw is weighted toward the other end. And you just keep tipping back and forth! Couples usually run into trouble when the seesaw is tipped too far toward one end. If it stays unbalanced for an extended period of time, then the sparks can really fly. For example, if a couple were able to deftly balance a conflict about closeness, they might be able to get by with only a few minor skirmishes. But if one partner decided to tip the seesaw by demanding a great deal more or a great deal less closeness, the relationship would probably end up in serious trouble. That is, unless the other partner shifted as well.

Do you remember this story? When Viagra, the drug for erection problems, first became available, a woman sued her seventy-year-old, longtime lover for damages. The woman claimed that the lover had been impotent for four years, but once he regained potency with the help of Viagra, he dumped her for another woman. I’m sure there’s more to the story, but my point is that for most of their four years together I suspect the couple was able to balance a master conflict centered around a serious sexual issue. But the feisty boyfriend tipped the seesaw beyond return when he suddenly decided to become potent and ply his wares elsewhere.

I am sympathetic about the anxiety that accompanies the decision-making process about a deep conflict—I’ve had my own big ones to grapple with over the years. When a person is truly struggling with one of these conflicts, it can seem as if his or her very survival depends on striking a good compromise.

This is where the power of master conflicts to bring couples together comes into play. They often act as a powerful—and almost immediate—bonding force.

The conventional wisdom holds that opposites attract. Well, on a surface level, opposites do attract. But, on a deeper and more important level, opposites do not attract—an assertion that at first confuses most of the couples I counsel, who believe they’re fighting so much because they’re so different. Certainly, we are often drawn to people whose personalities or temperaments are different from ours in certain ways, and those differences can lead to conflict. If you’re excitable or prone to stress, you may consciously pick a partner who you’re convinced is the complete opposite—calm. You may then end up fighting because your partner’s calmness begins to seem to you like a sign of not caring as much about things as you do, or because your partner begins to find your behavior agitating or hysterical. The psychological and biological (neurological and hormonal) makeup of men and women is different in some ways, though I believe that biological and gender differences have been overstated and that a stronger, deeper force of attraction in most of the couples I’ve counseled has been a shared master conflict. Again and again in my couples counseling, I’ve found that underlying conflicts play a major role in our choice of a long-term mate.

The reason master conflicts act as such a magnetic force is that in order to maintain your conflict, which almost all of us unconsciously try desperately to do, you must select someone with the same or similar conflict—your “twin-in-conflict.” If you pick someone with an identical conflict—unconsciously, of course—you can avoid resolving the conflict, and your partner can act as a fail-safe in this effort. After all, it’s natural that we feel most comfortable with someone who shares our master conflict because, on a deeper level, this person “gets” us and we also get them. Your unconscious quickly tells you that this person has experienced what you’ve experienced; therefore, what’s most important to him or her is most important to you.

Okay, you might ask, but what about physical attraction? What about personality type? What about similar interests? Don’t these factors count for anything? Of course they do. I strongly believe they all help us make relationship choices—just not in the same way that we often think they do. For example, if you’re a woman who is attracted to tall men with dark hair, I’m sure you look for these characteristics when searching for a mate. This is “surface attraction”—and it will take a relationship only so far. For a deep bond to occur, you’ll need to find a tall, dark man with whom you’re also compatible, and one of the powerful sources of compatibility is a shared master conflict.

Your master conflict is, by far, the best matchmaker you’ve got. For better or for worse, dating sites don’t come close to your master conflict. It even probably dictates whom you will choose on these popular sites. I tell clients this all the time: If I put you in a room with one hundred people, there’s an excellent chance that you’ll unconsciously choose the person with a similar master conflict. And let me stress that this is not necessarily a bad thing.


Master conflicts are normal in relationships and totally unavoidable. They exist in even the healthiest couples, but they rarely cause severe damage to these relationships. Some couples are simply better able to tolerate anxiety and loss and to successfully negotiate with their conflicts, and they experience only minor eruptions in their relationships.

Master conflicts also can do a couple some good. They can, at times, help to balance a relationship by limiting extreme behavior. For example, one partner might be able to set some limits on the other’s excessive spending and keep the couple financially solvent; the spendthrift may inject some much-needed excitement and fun into an otherwise boring relationship. But in many couples, master conflicts eventually become toxic to the point of destruction.

Take the case of a couple I treated, Eric and Jenna, who shared a security vs. risk conflict.

Jenna walked briskly into my office and threw herself down on one of the soft blue chairs by the window. At thirty-six, she was an attractive real estate agent. She immediately came across as decisive and fast-paced, speaking in a frustrated, pressured tone. “Life is so boring with Eric. I can’t stand it. I feel like I’m dying a slow death. He just doesn’t show any passion for anything, especially our sex life. There’s not an ounce of spontaneity in him—he’s so controlled.”

Eric was one of those souls who had a smile permanently attached to his face, as if someone had come along and glued a grin on him.

While still smiling, Eric protested his wife’s remarks. “We do a lot of things together—you’re just insatiable,” he said. “Yes, it’s true that I don’t like to take big risks or just take off somewhere without having a plan, but I enjoy life. I also like sex; I’m just not as kinky as you. Actually, I think you’re a little weird.” Eric then turned to me and said, “Jenna can never be satisfied. She’s an out-of-control Energizer Bunny.” When I asked him to clarify, he responded: “Jenna lives by the seat of her pants. If it were up to her, we’d live like Romans, but we wouldn’t have a penny left to our name.”

Eric and Jenna seemed to be complete opposites, but underlying their differences was the powerful psychological bond of both being conflicted about the degree of life security they wanted to get from being with a partner versus the amount of risk they wanted to take in their lives. Jenna vaguely knew she was attracted to Eric’s stable personality. But she had no idea that she’d soon become bored by stability and desperate for more stimulation. After all, no matter how stressful and disorganized her childhood had been, it never lacked excitement, risk, and unpredictability. In a sense, Jenna didn’t realize it when she married, but her internalized conflict dictated that she needed it both ways: unlimited excitement in her life as well as a safe, stable environment—two opposing needs. When things were too stable, she grew bored and looked to shake things up by engaging in risky, stimulating behavior; for example, Eric once caught Jenna looking at a dating site on the internet. When things were too out of control, she became anxious and sought stability and security. Most of the time she shifted back and forth, trying to find some sort of balance or compromise between the two. But since that wasn’t quite satisfying enough, she was threatening to end the marriage.

Eric knew that he was attracted to Jenna’s exciting, spontaneous personality, but he didn’t realize that it also scared him because it threatened to disturb his sense of order. He too was unaware that his internalized conflict dictated that he needed it both ways: excitement and spontaneity, but without risk—also two opposing needs. When Jenna randomly decided to spend a large amount of money on a luxurious car or pressured Eric to take a spontaneous trip to an exotic land, his anxiety level would blow sky-high. But if she failed to find something stimulating for the couple to do for some period of time, Eric became bored, somewhat immobilized, and slightly depressed. He too was trapped by his master conflict.

Eric and Jenna’s relationship wasn’t always this tense. For the first two years of marriage they were able to keep their security vs. risk master conflict under control by seesawing back and forth. For example, Eric would mildly pressure Jenna to curb her spending but willingly participated in many of her activities. He even took a vacation to Rio de Janiero with her that included only one minor skirmish, when Jenna wanted to extend the trip a few more days. Eric found this excessive but called their travel agent and booked the trip for an extra three days. Jenna also didn’t rock the boat too hard in the beginning of the marriage. She was never at a loss to try new and exciting things, but aside from the trip, she was generally careful about her spending. At times she even expressed concern about the couple’s finances, and this was music to Eric’s ears. So what happened? If Eric and Jenna were able to hold their master conflict in check at the beginning of their marriage, how did the relationship deteriorate to the point that they badly needed professional help? How did their marriage nearly fall apart so fast?

Many couples ask me these questions. The truth is that most relationships deteriorate over time if master conflicts aren’t under the control of the couple—they must be well managed. In the beginning, as in Eric and Jenna’s case, there are usually subtle signs that bigger problems are on the horizon. Examples are minor disagreements about the same issues over and over, such as how to handle money or how often to have sex. But these disagreements gradually begin to grate on each partner and grow increasingly unmanageable. Add to this an increase in life stressors such as the buying of a house, having children, or establishing careers, and a couple can develop serious problems before they can say “marriage counselor.” True, Eric and Jenna were able to balance their master conflict at the start of their relationship, but the balance proved to be a delicate one. Eric did enjoy Jenna’s ability to have fun and throw caution to the wind, but he lived in fear of her. Every time she took a risk he worried not only about the immediate consequences but about the future as well. He wondered what expensive venture Jenna would come up with next. He eventually became so unnerved that he developed a flinch response whenever she approached him. He thought, Now what does she want? How much will it cost? And even though Jenna enjoyed Eric’s practical nature, every time he questioned her moves, she resented him a little more. Soon she saw him as a “parent” trying to sap the enjoyment out of her life. With every passing year Eric worried more and more about whether the couple would have enough money saved for retirement, while Jenna worried about life passing her by.

So, do Eric and Jenna have any hope? Absolutely! Usually when partners realize that they actually share the same conflict, they begin to empathize with each other rather than fight. Anger, blame, and criticism subside greatly and I’ve found that husband and wife can become close allies, connected in a way that they’ve never experienced before. At that point, partners also tend to focus more on the positive aspects of each other’s personality rather than the negative aspects. Tolerance levels increase and negotiation and compromise come much more easily. Eric, for example, learned to focus more and more on the value of Jenna’s vivacious personality and the richness she brought to his life. Whereas he had begun to say no to Jenna before she even finished a sentence, he now learned to listen and carefully evaluate the merits of her suggestions. Jenna came to value Eric’s desire for stability more than she ever had. She began to think longer-term, and when Eric attempted to veto one of her ideas she handled it with grace and maturity. In a sense, both partners took responsibility for the problems they had brought to their relationship rather than blame each other.

Eric and Jenna turned out just fine but, like all couples, they had other options. They could have let their relationship continue as it was, but in my experience in counseling, the frictions over their master conflict would have continued to escalate and most likely they’d have ended up divorced. They could also have decided to give in to their master conflict, cut their losses, and move on. Unfortunately, it is also my experience that couples who ignore their master conflict are only inviting it to wreak havoc in their next relationship.

In working with couples, I have found that the extent to which a master conflict will cause trouble in a relationship will depend on several factors:

  • The strength of the master conflict and the depth of the couple’s pain. The influence of the master conflict almost always depends on the couple’s perception of how difficult it is to endure and their threshold for pain. In some cases, one partner may be much less tolerant than the other, and this can lead to a quick separation or divorce.

  • How long the master conflict has been causing the couple problems. If you have a large cavity and you don’t get it filled, you may end up needing a root canal; if you don’t get a root canal, you may end up losing the tooth. Likewise, if an unruly master conflict is allowed to simmer, pain and loss will follow.

  • Each partner’s ability to recognize the conflict and to take personal responsibility for his or her contribution to it, rather than assign blame to each other. The more perceptive the couple and the less defensive each partner is, the better their chance of managing their master conflict.

  • Each partner’s communication skills and problem-solving capability. We learn these skills in our families of origin. The better our parental role models were in these areas, the better our skills are.

  • How badly a couple wants to stay together. Some partners have “one foot out the door,” and they know it. Couples have to work hard at managing their master conflict; less than a full commitment will probably be a waste of time.

  • How badly a couple wants to be healthy. Staying together is one thing; plenty of couples allow their dysfunctional master conflicts to live on indefinitely. By contrast, a strong desire to be healthy means that you not only want to maintain the relationship, you want to be fulfilled by it as well.

  • How healthy a couple is capable of being. The simple truth is that some people just can’t fix their problems. These couples need to weigh the damage an out-of-control master conflict is inflicting on them, and then seriously consider whether it’s worth staying together.

Make no mistake, our conflicts can cause us a great deal of pain, especially when we reach a juncture where they are producing actual conflict of the kind Jenna and Eric were having. Couples for whom this is happening must learn to manage their shared conflict more successfully. In order to begin better management, we must first come to a better understanding of the nature of master conflicts, and then diagnose the issues in our own relationship specifically, and that is what this book will help you to do. To start that process, first let’s look more deeply into the nature of master conflicts, where they come from, and the basis of my argument about the role they play in relationships. Master conflicts are never completely resolved—they’re too deeply ingrained in us. But you can have a great relationship if you first find out what your master conflict is and then get it under your control.


I’ll probably sound like Woody Allen when I say this, but my analyst once told me that “conflict makes the world go around.” What did he mean by this? “We all have desires that we’d like to gratify,” he explained, “but we can’t always get what we want—or the price we’d have to pay to satisfy these desires seems just high enough to create conflict in us.” Remember those two politicians inside of you, creating a mass of frustration and confusion? Well, it’s a common, natural occurrence to be constantly confronted with situations that compel us to ask ourselves what is the right thing to do, or what’s the best path to take, or whether it’s worth the effort to go after what we want.

My point is that conflicts are a fundamental part of the human psyche, and so we all have them. How many people do you know who are completely satisfied with their life choices? Not many, I’ll bet. I can’t tell you how many guys I’ve met in their fifties who still want to be rock stars. Intellectually they’ve accepted the fact that they’ll never play an instrument on a stadium stage, but emotionally their fantasies may live on, creating a real malaise for themselves about life. I did not perceive right away in my counseling of couples how looking into their conflicts as individuals could provide such a powerful explanation of the relationship crises I was seeing. The core insight about how inner conflicts might be at play came to me unexpectedly, when I was in a therapy session myself.

I decided to open my own private clinical practice in the fall of 1992, after many years of training in couples therapy. I ended up treating just about every type of couple and every relationship problem you could imagine. My practice was thriving, but over time I became bothered by the fact that some couples weren’t progressing as well as I’d expected. I told myself that I had to go deeper; I had to do a better job of figuring out what was keeping these couples from resolving their problems. So, I went into psychoanalytic training to study the deepest form of psychotherapy treatment.

I was in session, lying on the couch, as one is required to do in analytic training, and I mentioned to my analyst that I was considering writing a book on a specific type of relationship dynamic that had caught my interest. In response, after a long pause, he simply said, “Hmmm.” Six months later I brought up the book idea again. This time my analyst let out a throat-clearing grunt. After about a year’s time had passed, I brought the subject up a third time. This time his response was priceless. He shot back at me, “You could have written it by now.” That comment really made me think; I was forced to ask myself a simple but vital question: If I wanted to do something, why wasn’t I doing it? The analyst was right—I could have already written the book. Instead I’d wasted almost two years of my life just yapping without acting. What was wrong with me? Was I in some sort of conflict about reaching my goal? It was then that I realized I’d been seeing a form of this same indecision in so many of the couples I was counseling, and I decided to tap into the powerful insights of conflict theory in order to come up with a more effective method for therapy.

Conflict theory is the core of most psychoanalytic treatment methods, so you could say that it has been around for ages. And if you referred to it as the “first talk therapy,” you wouldn’t be far off. Basically, conflict theory says that we all have inner conflicts left over from our childhoods—conflicts that have to do with unmet gratifications and desires—and that these conflicts may appear later in life as neurotic symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and even physical symptoms. This form of therapy was initially used to treat individuals. The thinking was that if the practicing psychoanalyst could uncover a patient’s deepest conflicts, his or her symptoms would disappear. It was not thought to be a treatment for curing couples, even though it was believed that a cure in one partner might produce a cure in the relationship. In some cases this turned out to be true, but the prevailing belief is that the most effective way to treat a relationship is by seeing both partners together. Most couples therapists don’t use conflict theory, but when I teamed key aspects of it with the couples theories I already knew, as I suspected, it proved to be the most powerful treatment formula I had ever observed in all my years of treating couples.

As I began to probe into the problems of the couples I was treating, I began to see that underlying those apparent troubles—fights about money, affairs, problems with in-laws, and so on—were deeper conflicts within each partner. The more I delved into these conflicts with couples, the clearer the pattern became; that so often couples had been brought together largely on the basis of a shared conflict, and now that shared conflict was pushing them apart.

Adding conflict theory to my treatment of couples made it easier for me to diffuse anger, to stop each partner from playing the blame game and help them learn to take responsibility for how each contributed to their relationship problems and thus reduce their relationship symptoms. Even those couples whose relationships were destined to end, usually because of a lack of motivation, were able to get unstuck and move on with their lives faster and with less animosity than I had been accustomed to witnessing. So, the first step in my work with couples is to fill them in about the role of master conflicts and their nature as quickly as possible and to start them on the process of thinking about what master conflict they may have. I will close this chapter by starting you on that process also.


As I said, most of us have a number of inner conflicts. So, how can we begin to determine which of these is playing the role of master conflict in our relationship? Your master conflict is the one that is the most important because it’s usually

  • Beyond your awareness. Your master conflict is almost always repressed, or hidden in your unconscious. You may “know” about one side of your conflict, but not both sides, or what caused it.

  • Deeply rooted in your past. Your master conflict started in your childhood.

  • Always with you. Remember, because your master conflict is so deeply ingrained, it is nearly impossible to erase it completely.

  • More powerful than any other conflict. Your master conflict dwarfs any other conflict you’ve got.

  • Closely tied to your relationship problems. Your master conflict is more responsible for your relationship problems than any of your other conflicts.

  • A factor in many areas of your life. Your master conflict is not just a major factor in your relationships but may also underlie any problems you have experienced at work, with friends, and in other facets of life. Think of your problems as possible “symptoms” of your master conflict.

In the next several chapters, I will describe master conflicts in much more detail, introducing the most common ones I have seen in my practice, including many specific examples based on couples I have counseled, so that you will be able to get a good understanding of how they show up in relationships and how they lead to problems. As you read through those stories, you should be thinking about which of them resonate the most with you and are most similar to the story of your relationship. This will help you home in on which of them is probably at the core of your relationship troubles.

I’ll also investigate where our master conflicts come from, describing how they usually stem from our early life experiences, and particularly from our family circumstances. I will then address the specific reasons why we generally hold onto our conflicts so tenaciously, which I think will help convince you that you should learn to manage your own conflict and also find a way to do so in your relationship.

Because most couples attribute their relationship problems not to a master conflict they share but rather to the one of three big issues—conflicts about sex, money, and in-laws—I will then explore how these problems are so often actually symptoms of a deeper, underlying master conflict rather than the root cause of the relationship crisis. I will then walk you through how to diagnose which master conflict may be causing the problems in your own relationship and how to manage it.

But first, in order to determine whether or not a master conflict may be the cause of your issues, you should take this short quiz, which I have found helps to pinpoint a master conflict that’s gone out of control.
1. Have you been frustrated with your relationship for three months or longer?     2. Are you often confused as to why you and your partner fight or argue?     3. Do you and your partner argue about the same issue over and over?     4. Do you and your partner argue with the same level of intensity over a variety of issues, even minor ones?     5. Does your partner ever say or do things that don’t make sense to you?     6. Does your partner accuse you of the same things you accuse him or her of?     7. Does it seem to you that you can never satisfy your partner?     8. Does your partner show little or no interest in solving your relationship problems?     9. When you get close to settling a problem does your partner sabotage the resolution or immediately create another problem?     10. Have you been to counseling but nothing has changed?    
If you answered yes to five or more of these questions, then your relationship problems have the features that I’ve most often found indicate a master conflict at work. Take heart, because I have also found in my counseling that the knowledge of a master conflict is power, and that learning to better manage the frustrations it is causing is a wonderfully restorative process that has allowed many of the couples I’ve worked with to not only resolve their relationship crisis but achieve a new level of joy and appreciation of each other and of the value and deep satisfaction of their relationship.

© 2010 Stephen J. Betchen

About The Author

Blanche Mackey Photography

Stephen Betchen, D.S.W, is a writer, licensed Marriage and Family therapist, and a Certified Sex Therapist. He earned his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania and had fellowships at The New York Hospital-Cornell University Medical Center, as well as The Institute of the Philadelphia Association for Psychoanalysis.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (April 1, 2014)
  • Length: 240 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451614039

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