Conflict is inevitable in every relationship. The prevalent approach to conflict resolution, advocated by many marriage therapists, is to put yourself in your partner’s shoes, listen to what they say, and communicate with empathy that you understand their perspective. It’s an effective method if you can do it.
But most couples can’t. According to extensive research conducted by world-renowned psychologist and marriage therapist Dr. John Gottman (aka the “Einstein of Love”), even happy couples don’t follow the experts’ rules of communication. If the Hollywood movie version of your conflict resolution style is more akin to “The War of the Roses” than “When a Man Loves a Woman,” here’s an alternative approach that might foster more love and less war in your relationship.
Step 1: Soften Your Start-Up
How a conversation starts predicts how it will end. A harsh conversation start-up lobs destructive verbal weapons such as criticism, contempt, and defensiveness. Not surprisingly, that approach fosters increased emotional distance and stonewalling that can strain your relationship. Here’s an example of a harsh start-up:
Katie: Once again, I come home from work and have to pick up after you. (criticism)
David: Here we go again. I’m such a slob, right? I clean the kitchen counters all the time.
Katie: Then why do I have to remind you to clean the dishes in the sink or take out the trash? It’s frustrating when our house smells disgusting! Don’t worry about it today. I already did it, or were you too busy browsing Facebook to notice? (contempt)
David: Hey. Come on. I hate cleaning. I know you do, too. I have an idea.
Katie rolls her eyes. (more contempt)
David: I think we need some connection. Let’s take a vacation so you can be waited on?
Katie: Seriously? We can’t afford a maid, much less a vacation. (more contempt and stonewalling)
By contrast, a soft start-up communicates respect and causes both partners to feel positive about themselves and their relationship. Here are some suggestions to soften your start-up:
- Take responsibility. “I share some responsibility for this…”
- Complain without blame and state a positive need. “Here’s how I feel…about a specific situation and here’s what I need…” (positive need, not what you don’t need)
- Start with “I” instead of “You.” I statements are less critical and don’t make the listener as defensive as “you” statements.
- Describe what is happening. Don’t judge or blame. Communicate what you see will help your partner from feeling attacked.
- Be polite. Use “please” and “I would appreciate it if…”
- Be appreciative. Recognize what you appreciate in your partner.
- Don’t let things build up. If you do, it’ll escalate in your mind until you blow-up.
Here’s the same exchange between Katie and David, but with a soft start-up instead of a harsh one:
Katie: I feel like our house is a mess and we’re having family over tonight. (describing) I’m angry because I feel like I’m doing all the cleaning by myself. I should’ve asked sooner (taking responsibility). I need you to help me vacuum the living room? (positive need).
David: I understand. I hate cleaning up too and I’d be willing to vacuum and even clean the bathroom for you.
Katie: You’re such a big help. (appreciation). Thank you love. (politeness)
David: After the family is gone, let’s go out for our favorite ice cream!
Katie: I’m so in!
Step 2: Learn to Send and Receive Repair Attempts
Think of a repair attempt as slamming on the brakes when you see a red light. You do this to avoid a collision that could harm your relationship. When David said, “I clean the kitchen counters all the time,” Katie could have said, “You’re right, you do.” Doing this would’ve been a repair attempt and de-escalated the tension, allowing both partners to be more receptive to finding a solution.
The difference between stable, emotionally intelligent relationships and unhappy ones is not that repair attempts are better, but that the repair attempts get through to the other partner. Repair attempts require two people – the person offering the repair and one accepting it.
Repair attempts often start before a repair is made. It’s dependent on the state of the relationship. Happy couples send and receive repair attempts with ease. In unhappy relationships that are swimming in an ocean of negativity, even amazing repair attempts fall on deaf ears.
Knowing how your partner receives love and what they need to repair from conflict is like having a secret weapon tailored just to them and their happiness. If your partner responds well to gifts, during a cool-down period after a fight you might go buy her a flower or her favorite coffee drink from Starbucks. If your partner craves affirmation, during a fight you could seek to reassure him how much you love him, even when you’re angry about something he did. If your partner’s primary love language is physical touch, try hugging or kissing your partner to express affection in the midst of conflict.
Step 3: Soothe Yourself and Each Other
In unstable relationships, conflict discussions can lead to “flooding.” Flooding refers to the giant waves of bad feelings (rage, hurt, panic, and fear) that completely knock you down and take any rational thought with them when you’re in the middle of a conflict or disagreement.
When you’re flooded, it’s physically impossible for you to hear your partner’s repair attempts. If you or your partner feel flooded, take a 20-30 minute break and focus on the positives of your relationship by yourself.
When you regroup with your partner, learn how to soothe each other. To do that, ask each other the following questions:
- What makes us feel flooded?
- How do we bring up issues or complaints?
- Do we hold things in, rather than share them? If so, why do you think that is?
- When you feel flooded, is there something I can do to soothe you?
- How do you think you could soothe me when I feel flooded?
- What signals can we send each other when we feel flooded so we can take breaks and soothe each other?
Step 4: Compromise
We’ve all been there: in the middle of a fight we know we can’t win, aware that our frustration has overwhelmed all sense of perspective, yet utterly unable to stop. In those moments, it may help to remember the old saying: It’s better to bend than to break!
Compromise is not one person changing. It’s about negotiating and discovering ways to accommodate each other. Compromise never feels perfect. Both parties gain something and lose something. The important thing is feeling heard, understood, and respected.
Another important point to keep in mind is that relationships can be weighed down by incessant “if only…” statements (e.g., “If only my partner was richer/sexier/more emotionally expressive”). Unlike cherishing your partner, which nurtures gratefulness for what you have, “if only” statements nurture resentfulness towards your partner. Not surprisingly, resentment is a huge impediment to conflict resolution.
Step 5: Address Emotional Injuries
Arguments happen, and often enough we say or do the wrong thing, and end up hurting one another. When one or both partners are left feeling hurt, frustrated, or angry after a fight, wouldn’t it be nice if you could just hit a restart button? Unfortunately, you can’t erase an argument from your memory, but you can repair and move forward.
The key to repairing and moving forward is knowing how to process an argument in a way that helps you learn from it. Processing means talking about what happened without jumping back into the argument. It’s crucial to understand that in any given argument, there’s no absolute “reality” as to what happened. There are always two “subjective realities” or perspectives. It’s never a matter of who’s right and who’s wrong, but how the two of you can come to understand each other, accept responsibility, and find your points of compromise so that you can move forward together.