Great couples are not necessarily devoid of relationship conflict.
But they do know how to argue well.
This article, based on scientific research, will tell you:
- What is relationship conflict
- What destructive relationship conflict looks like (w/ videos)
- The concrete steps of constructive conflict
- Skills to Fix Relationship Conflict
- Types of Relationship Conflict
- Relationship Conflict Types
- Emotional Bond & Conflict Management
What Solving Relationship Conflict Means
First of all, solving relationship conflict doesn’t mean eradicating conflict altogether.
Let’s be clear about something right away: conflict is inevitable.
As a matter of fact, relationship researcher John Gottman says it should probably not be avoided at all. And conflict per se is not a predictor of break up.
But how you handle conflict is a predictor of breakups.
This article is about handling relationship conflicts in a way that can be healthy and productive.
Skills to Fix Relationship Conflict
Let’s get right into it.
Gottman outlines six major skills to handle relationship conflict.
#1. Self Soothing
During conflict our heart beats faster and, especially if it starts heating up, it’s possible that we enter into flight or fight.
Gottman refers to flight or fights as “flooding”.
When that happens it’s highly unlikely that we will have a productive conversation and very likely instead that we will escalate into criticism, contempt, meanness, and overall develop a very negative outlook of our partner and our relationship.
The solution is to take a break whenever we feel we are getting too nervous. And this is especially important for men because they enter into flight or fight much faster than women.
#2: Soften Start-up
Interactions often end the way they began.
So if you begin with a belligerent or contemptuous attitude, it’s not likely to get any better from there.
How to do that?
For the first three minutes:
- Avoid verbally assaulting your partner
- Avoid finger pointing body language
- Try to start slightly more calmly to avoid a defensive response
There’s also a strong relation between emotional connection and soft start-up: the more attuned the couple is at an emotional level, the more natural a soft startup will happen.
#3: Repair and De-escalate
Repair attempts are all the techniques that strong couples use to de-escalate their conflict.
It’s a fantastic tool for conflict management that avoids spiraling negative cycles.
Here are a few ways in which you can repair and de-escalate an argument heating up a bit too quickly:
- Say you’re getting flooded and need a break
- Make a joke
- Tell your partner you appreciate how cool she is keeping it
- Say that you understand his point and you would also be angry
- Accept responsibility
- Ask for forgiveness
But also sentences such as:
OK, I’m not making myself clear enough, sorry, lemme rephrase it. What I mean is that..
Hmmm It feels to me like we’re talking past each other now. Let’s go about it one at a time. You tell me everything you wanna say and I will just listen. Then you will listen to me. OK?
Here’s a great example of a repair attempt:
He realized they were going into a vicious circle and he broke the pattern
#4: Look for Underlying Causes
In Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage, Gottman says that perpetual gridlocked arguments (more below) often hide feelings and dreams that are not being clearly communicated.
The solution is to listen to our partner to get to know the real them. Once our partners feel safe to open up, they won’t have to hide their feelings and dreams behind an argument and we can finally find better compromises.
Some good questions:
- OK… It sounds like you really care about it, could you explain to me why
- I really want to understand you here.. Can you tell me why it’s so important to you
- OK. Well, what does it mean to you when I do X
Gottman says there are three levels to support our partners:
- Listening (without criticizing)
- Financially supporting them
- Taking active part in them
Notice that the third is not necessary. But maybe you can still find a little compromise there. For example, with a sport-loving partner, you might not want to go run every day, but you could go once a week and run for half the distance.
Then wait for them at the ice cream parlor.
#5: Accept Influence
Accepting influence is most often -albeit non-exclusively- a problem for men.
Not accepting influence is really a bad omen for relationships: 81% of relationships where he doesn’t accept her influence end up in divorce.
Notice that accepting influence doesn’t mean you have to agree with your partner’s idea or solution. Nor does it mean that you are losing power: as a matter of fact accepting influence will give you less rebellion, more love, and more influencing power.
Accepting influence begins with wanting to understand what your partner wants, what her needs are, and what you can do to meet them and make her happy.
Relationships, where only one party gets his way are not good relationships (read about power addicts).
To get into a compromise mindset you need to give up the idea that one partner can be a winner and the other can be a loser.
The only way to win is when both win.
Bonus: Communication Skills
On top of Gottman’s 6 basic skills, I would also add some good communication skills to stave off The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse.
We talked about it in the article on criticism.
And here’s a quick wrap-up:
- Use I statements
- Complain about specific issues instead of general personal traits
- Focus on how you are feeling instead of how bad your partner was
- Describe what happened without judging
- Make sure you understand before you are understood
Types of Relationship Conflict
In The Seven Principles to Make Marriage Work Gottman introduces the three type of problems a relationship face:
- Solvable problems are situational issues. It might be what to eat today, or who will pick up the dry cleaning.
- Perpetual problems center around fundamental differences in personalities, lifestyles, or values. Most of the problems -69%- are actually perpetual problems that most couples will return to over and over again.
- Gridlocked perpetual problems are perpetual problems that the couple is not handling well and have become hot topics that lead to ugly conflicts.
Example of Unsolvable Gridlocked Conflict
Mrs. Doubtfire’s divorce scene is an example of a gridlocked conflict.
It’s recurring, it’s based on personality traits and it has reached a point where she’s lost all respect for him because of it:
The gridlocked conflict here is along the personality traits of seriousness (being a square) and playful (childish).
Solving Unsolvable Conflicts
Harville Hendrix, author of Getting The Love You Want, explains we often pick partners with traits that either remind us of our parents or that ” complete us”.
This is how it works: at the beginning, we admire their different traits because they can make us feel whole or because we wish we had their traits.
However, after we’ve been together for a while those same traits start annoying us. And since they’re so different than how we are, they are the most likely to arise gridlocked conflicts that turn nasty.
Trying to solve unsolvable issues that relate to personalities can be counterproductive. You can rarely solve them for good and it’s easy to get drawn into personality battles.
Discussing them can provide an opportunity for understanding and growth.
Here are three strategies:
#1. Listen Without Persuading
Abandon the idea of winning, convincing your partner, or making your point across. One of the two of you will have to only listen until you fully understand your partner.
To make sure you fully understand your partner, you have to repeat your part. This is actually the most important part.
Since you will not fully solve most unresolvable conflicts -but hey, never say never!- the feeling that our partner understands is often enough.
#2. Find Areas of Flexibility
Once you fully understand your partner, if you have a positive relationship, you should normally strive to do something to make your partner’s situation better.
Think of where you can compromise.
#3. Thank and Appreciate
Thank your partner for opening up. If no compromise was possible, agree to disagree and learn to appreciate them for their differences.
Choosing a partner means choosing a set of unsolvable problems
Relationship Conflict Types
In Why Marriages Succeed or Fail Gottman outlines the different personality types depending on how they approach conflict in a relationship.
Here are the three types:
- Validating (high EQ arguing)
They’re calm and make an effort to understand their partner’s point of view and their emotions.
Even when disagreeing in the midst of a fight they let their partners know they consider their emotions and opinion to be valid.
They use a lot of “aha” and “I see” and encourage the partner to share everything.
Validating couples tend to have traditional and defined roles. The wife takes care of children and sees herself as nurturing, the husband is the final decision maker and sees himself analytical.
They tend to be good friends and value the “we” of their marriage.
Risks: turning the marriage into a passionless arrangement and foregoing personal lives and self-development for the “we” cause.
But overall it’s a solid marriage.
- Volatile (lots of arguments)
They fight frequently and have an even bigger time making up (which attention, it’s not to say all fighting couples have stable marriages!).
Their quarrels are heated and they don’t listen to each other: they try to persuade the other right away. They’re all about winning.
They use a lot of “yes you do” and “no I don’t”, and “you’re wrong”.
They value full honesty and independence.
Risks: Too much bickering can consume their marriage, or lead violence in extreme cases. The teasing they enjoy can end up hurting
- Conflict avoidant
They minimize conflicts and they avoid “unsolvable” issues altogether.
They consider issues “resolved” when they can’t find a middle ground and don’t try to convince the other.
Avoidant couples prove that a marriage can work even without solving disputes. It’s a different kind of “we” for avoidant couples: the bond is so strong that it trumps the disagreements.
Risks: They don’t learn to address issues which can be an issue should they need to have an argument one day. Also, they are low on introspection and understanding, which can lead a partner to think their spouse doesn’t really understand them.
When someone is too much an avoidant they believe there are no relationships conflicts in great couples. And that’s wrong: conflict is unavoidable in relationships.
These are the different mixes of personalities we can have.
“You” is the first half:
- Conflict Avoider / Volatile
This is a rare mix, and Gottman speculates it’s because it never moves past the dating period. The avoider feels overwhelmed by the partner’s combativeness. And you can feel they’re too impinging when they push you to solve conflicts.
- Volatile / Conflict Avoider
Your spouse probably feels you always bring conflict into the marriage and that you are overly emotional
- Validator / Volatile
You find your partner argumentative and domineering. You don’t think they give you a chance to express yourself and you wish you could function more as a unit.
- Volatile / Validator
You perceive your partner as too detached. You try to get a raise out of your partner sometimes and feel like your need for autonomy falls on deaf ears.
Is Zero Conflict Possible?
In a way, the avoidant style couple has very little conflict.
But zero conflict at all, it’s probably not a healthy relationship. Couples need to hear their differences and they need to raise the issues that are painful for them.
So while disagreement and conflict might make us feel miserable at times, it’s helpful in the long run.
Emotional Bond & Conflict Management
Finally, I would like to introduce a different point of view.
All the techniques we discussed are helpful.
But Sue Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight, says that handling conflict is the tip of the iceberg, and the real core issue is a strong emotional bond.
With a strong emotional bond, even poor conflict management skills will give you a solid, healthy relationship.
I believe conflict management skills are more important than Sue makes them out to be, but I also agree with her marriage.
Check this video: no conflict management could save the argument once they realize their emotional bond has vanished.
On the other hand, a strong emotional bond will automatically secure your relationship.
Conflict Management in Perspective
Conflict management is also one of the key skills of The Sound Relationship House by Gottman, but not the only one. The others are:
Remind yourself what you appreciate about your partner and say to each other. Fondness and admiration indeed help emotional bonding.
Instead of “doing your own thing” you engage with your partner and show that you care. This is another tool to replenish your emotional bank account and show your partner that you care
A positive perspective ensures that you focus on the positives.
Knowing how to handle relationship conflict is a key skill for a successful relationship.
But as important as it is, it’s only when it’s part of a bigger strategy of emotional attunement, appreciation, and positive perspective that it can be helpful.
This article showed you both how to solve conflicts in your relationship and how to put it in perspective of an overall healthy relationship.
Or, for an overall overview: