“ We never fight. I just don’t think it solves anything.” “We have the same arguments over and over. They just never get resolved.” “When we have a disagreement, it seems like it takes us forever to clear the air.”
I hear these comments from couples in my practice of couple therapy nearly every week, and I am always struck by how conflicted we are about conflict! I was too! I grew up in a family where my parents didn’t argue – they had three fights in 58 years – so I never got to witness what healthy marital conflict looked like. I had to learn. I am still learning and you can too.
The first thing to remember about conflict – in a marriage, at work, among classmates, between friends, even between political positions – is that it always signals a need for change. In any discussion, we are actually conversing on three levels: the content or issue we are focused on, the feelings we have associated with the issue, and the unmet needs we may be experiencing under the content and emotions. We usually just talk about the issue and our conversation is fueled by our feelings. We seldom if ever get down to really talking about our unmet needs, if we have even been able to clearly identify them.
The research by John and Julie Gottman at the “Marriage Lab” in Seattle revealed that the amount of conflict in a relationship is seemingly unimportant. Couples that have lots of conflict as well as couples that have very little can enjoy a fulfilling and rewarding relationship. What is important is how couples have conflict and how quickly they repair any resulting rift in their emotional bond. They also determined that in even in the most fulfilling of relationships, nearly two-thirds of couple issues never get resolved to agreement.
So what is going on when couples handle conflict effectively? What are they doing that leads to the creation of a sturdy couple container within which they can disagree and yet be loving and supportive with one another? Here are some practical suggestions from the Gottmans’ research.
- Soften your startup. Arguments that begin loudly and aggressively will tend to end in the same way. Take a brief moment to calm down when you are upset about something, and figure out a way to gently introduce the topic for conversation. You can use that “time out” to compose an “I” Statement, the best way to state your concern. More about “I” Statements in another post at a later date.
- Complain, don’t criticize. Speak about what is bothering you in terms of behaviors without judging your partner’s character or identity. It is so much easier to hear “I get frustrated when I have to pick up your clothes and shoes from the bedroom floor,” than to hear “You are such a slob!”
- Make and receive attempts to repair after a fight. Look for and offer words and behaviors that help to slow down the conflict, avoid escalation, and keep you from walking away in anger and with harsh words. “I need to calm down. Let’s take a break for a bit.” “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” “Can I give you a hug? I don’t like feeling so apart from you.” There are countless ways to repair; be intentional about building your repair repertoire.
- Soothe yourself and one another. Have you and/or your partner become flooded with emotions? Take a break – go for a walk, complete a mindless task, sit and focus on your breathing – and give yourself a chance to recover from the emotional hijack you are experiencing. And remember: if you do not return to the conversation soon, you risk creating additional resentment in your partner. Some of us need time to soothe ourselves alone. Some of us become very frightened and feel abandoned when we are left alone with our strong feelings.
- Learn when to “let it go” and not fight, and when to compromise. Look for common ground, not just what separates you. Give some rational thought as to how important the issue really is in the larger life picture. And remember: we all want to feel that we can have influence over our partners. Be willing to accept such influence from your spouse.
- Finally, be tolerant of who your partner is. You can’t change them! And you will only drive yourself and them crazy trying. The very characteristics in them that are currently driving you crazy are often the very things that attracted you to them in the first place. Try to take delight in the uniqueness of what they bring to your relationship, to your family, to the world. There is no one else quite the same!