Do you ever feel like you and your partner are arguing over the same things over and over again? Does it seem like you come to a compromise only to find yourself re-visiting the same challenge a week, month or year later? Admittedly, this can be frustrating for even the most resilient couples. Questions may arise such as, “Are we not a good match?” Or “What are we doing wrong?”
According to John and Julie Gottman, marriage therapists who create research-based approaches to healthy relationships, repeatedly facing the same conflicts doesn’t mean you’re a bad fit for each other, it simply means you’re being honest and bringing your whole self to the table. Any time two people have differences in personality, temperament and lifestyle needs, there’s bound to be conflict – even repetitive conflict.
The Gottman duo have identified a pattern of problems that couples seem to return to repeatedly. They’ve given them a name: “unsolvable” or “perpetual” problems. Their research in this area shows that 69% of problems between couples fall in this category while 31% land in the “solvable” problems category— problems you probably won’t be re-visiting in a week, month or year. The key, Gottman asserts, is to handle all conflicts in a way that promotes connection. In a nutshell, adopting healthy communication styles can ensure your disagreement doesn’t lead to disconnection.
When couples learn about this 70/30 statistic, they usually react with one of two responses: defeat or relief. Couples who have an expectation that relationships should be without conflict feel frustrated. They wanted to know the magic solution to avoid conflict, not hear from an expert that some conflict is inevitable. Others hear this statistic and breathe a deep sigh of relief. Now that they can lay down the expectation of perfection, they feel empowered to roll up their sleeves and get to work on enhancing the goodness of their existing relationship.
One key way to enhance your relationship is to consider how you and your partner handle conflict. When couples handle perpetual problems with criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling (what Gottman calls the “4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse), they can get stuck quite easily. Gottman calls this place of paralysis “gridlock”. Gridlock is when communication ceases to be productive and we move toward emotional disengagement. We may not think emotional disengagement matters, but over time, this distancing can erode the emotional intimacy and friendship of the marriage. Ever felt like you’ve moved from partners to roommates and have become like ships passing in the night? That’s emotional disconnection you’re experiencing— and it matters. Gottman’s research shows that marriages fall apart in one of two seasons: within the first 7 years due to difficulty assimilating to the relationship and at around 16-20 years due to emotional disconnection. Staying emotionally connected is crucially important.
One way to do this is to consider conflict as an opportunity to deepen our understanding of our partner. To move out of gridlock, individuals can reach beneath the surface and let each person explain their reasoning behind why their values are so strong in that particular area. Conflict arises when it appears that a partner is disregarding a deeply held value. It’s worth noting that sometimes the very passion that drew you to your partner becomes a source of contention in moments of conflict.
So how we do respond during a conflict? In partner conflict (and in life), it’s important to note that understanding paves the way toward the beginning of compromise and resolution. Oftentimes we try to come to a compromise before we even truly understand what the other person wants/needs. Use reflective listening with your partner. This is when you listen to your partner then repeat back (or paraphrase) what you thought you heard them say. Once both partners have communicated what they thought they heard their partner say and the needs presented, only then can we move toward compromise or solution. Listening precedes understanding and understanding precedes resolution.
Anotherway to get past gridlock is to start becoming curious rather than judgmental about our partner’s reasoning behind their strong reaction. Of course, curiosity is oftentimes the last thing we consider while in the middle of an argument but it’s truly a precipitant of relational strength. Remember the early days of your relationship when you studied your partner with an insatiable curiosity? In the hustle of every day life, it’s easy to forget that learning about our partner is a lifelong pursuit.
In addition to adopting a stance of curiosity, the Gottman team recommends we begin conflict conversations with an approach they call a “softened start up”. Here’s an astounding fact that will make you re-consider a cavalier approach to conflict: Gottman’s research shows that the first 3 minutes of a conflict discussion can predict, with 96% accuracy, how the rest of the conversation will go and with 80% accuracy how the relationship will go 6 years down the road. Here are a few suggestions to help prepare a softened start up:
- Choose a time to discuss the conflict when both partners are emotionally regulated if possible. Our patience and ability to receive feedback is directly related to our physical and emotional state. Some of us want to resolve conflict right away, but oftentimes the best time to resolve conflict is when you’re emotionally able to think clearly, which may take some time, depending on how triggering the conflict is for you.
- If you’re a couple who prioritizes faith in your relationship, take a moment to pray together out loud. It’s very difficult to hold onto anger, bitterness, resentment and frustration when both of you are sitting at the table with the Divine. Prayer has been shown to help regulate our nervous systems and activate the part of the brain that helps us experience love. We could most all agree that an increase in love is helpful to navigate conflict well.
- Consider the acronym HALT. HALT stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. We aren’t primed to respond well to conflict while in these states of being. Grab a snack, calm down your nervous system, connect with a friend, your partner or God through prayer and then take a rest if needed. These are acts of self-care that will help prepare you to feel strong enough to handle conflict in a healthy way.
Next week, we’ll continue to explore conflict in relationships as we discuss how to identify if trauma is calling the shots in your conflict discussions. We’ll also discuss the differences in how each partner handles emotions. We’ll be exploring key differentiating factors in the conflict/resolution approach of each partner. For ongoing, engaging conversation about these topics, don’t forget to check out the Positive Talk Podcast every Thursday at www.positivetalkpodcast.com.