The Right (and Wrong) Way to Fight with Your PartnerBy Zach Brittle
Whenever I do pre-marital counseling with couples, I ask them to tell me about their biggest fight. Usually I get a really great story. Occasionally, the couple will get into the fight again. Rarely, but often enough, a couple will tell me that they’ve never fought. Whenever I hear this, a red-flag immediately goes up. A couple that never fights? That’s like a unicorn or at least a black swan. A relationship without conflict simply doesn’t exist. It’s not mathematically possible for two independent willful people to benevolently agree 100% of the time.
Can we agree that conflict is inevitable? If we can’t, we may be due for an argument. (See what I did there?) If, however, we can acknowledge that relationships are fertile breeding ground for miscommunication, disappointment, and disconnect, then we can begin to devise strategies for dealing with the inevitable. In addition to being inevitable, Dr. John Gottman’s research revealed that ⅔ of relationship conflict is also unsolvable. This means couples have a responsibility and even a mandate to learn conflict management skills.
Here are Dos and Don’ts for how to manage relationship conflict.
Don’t Get Flooded:
Just as there is an optimal heart rate for physical exercise, there is also an optimal heart rate for relationship interaction. Pay attention to your pulse. If you’re up around 100bpm, your body starts secreting adrenaline and other stress hormones. This is when fight-or-flight kicks in. (Neither is a good strategy for conflict resolution.) Pay attention to your body and practice self-soothing when you suspect you’re getting flooded. You might try taking a walk or a nap or any number of meditative breathing exercises. The key is to take a break from the issue and give yourself and your partner permission to calm down.
Do Use Softened Start-Up:
You already know how to use softened start-up. It’s the way you manage differences with friends, colleagues, even strangers. The rules for softened start-up are simple: Stick to the facts as you fill in the blanks: “I feel _____ about _____ and I need _____.” When you introduce an issue with respect and courtesy, invite a civil discourse. And by focusing on facts rather than assumptions, you set the whole discussion up for success.
Conflict discussion can go one of two directions. Generally when the discussion escalates, it ends badly and neither partner has gained any ground. When the conversation de-escalates, it creates room for dialogue. In order to prevent escalation, don’t find fault, don’t bring up the past and don’t keep going once the conversation is off the rails. Master couples have an ability to repair a conflict discussion early and often in order to keep it from escalating and becoming unproductive.
Do Accept Influence:
This one is especially relevant for men. Dr. Gottman’s research showed that men who had the emotional intelligence to accept influence from women fare much better relationally than men who don’t. So do their wives. So do their kids. But the idea of sharing power goes both ways. Both partners need to be willing to give-and-take on both sides of a conflict. Rather than countering your partner in the midst of an argument, start saying yes. When one or both of you begin yielding to parts of your partner’s point of view, the problem starts to become something that both of you are working on together.
Don’t Need to Win:
When one partner “wins” in any—or every—given conflict, usually both partners are losing. It’s important to recognize compromise as an essential conflict skill. And the reality is that compromise never feels perfect. Both partners will gain and both will lose. It may be important to grieve what is lost, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of your partner or a reasonable solution. Compromise is an art. Be creative.
Do Listen To Your Partner’s Dreams:
Given that ⅔ of relational issues are unsolvable and gridlocked, it is important to create dialogue based on understanding before solution. Get curious about your partner’s position on the issue. Dr. Gottman recommends becoming a “dream detective” where you help explore the issue in a way that gets to the heart of the matter. Emphasizing the dream about, rather than the position on, the issue allows for a deeper connection in the midst of conflict.
Whether you’re just starting out in a new relationship, thinking of getting married, or you’ve been married forever, it’s important to recognize that conflict is just part of the deal. I actually believe that relationships need conflict and subsequent repair in order to strengthen the bond between two partners. It’s not too late to learn effective conflict management skills.
If I can help, don’t hesitate to drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet me @kzbrittle.
You can also try Dr. Gottman's 4-week Happify track, Make Your Love Last: The Science of Happy Marriages, for research-tested activities for a happier, more harmonious relationship.
Zach Brittle is a couples therapist in Seattle, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He is a Certified Gottman Therapist and works closely with the The Gottman Institute as a regular contributor to the Gottman Relationship Blog. Connect with Zach at www.zachbrittle.com or @kzbrittle on Twitter.
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