Conflict in your partnership is inevitable. Dr. John Gottman, noted American researcher on the predictors of divorce and marital stability, says that over 69% of issues within marriage are unresolvable. 69%!
But, you probably already knew that by the experience in your relationship, right? You’ve been having roughly the same fight with your partner for longer than you care to remember. “Why do you always leave dirty dishes in the sink?” Why do you let the kids have so much time glued to the screen when I am not around?” “Why am I always the one who plans the meals, sets up vacations, communicates with extended family, feeds the dogs, etc…” You fill in the blank.
Flipping the script In Your Relationship
You could be overwhelmed by the enormity of the 69%, or you could turn this entire issue on its head. Instead of resolving the conflict, you could instead choose to focus on the health and growth of your relationship. The goal then becomes to preserve the relationship and move it forward. To honor your partner trumps being right, winning an argument, or getting your way.
All of this is very hard work! All of this takes committed practice. But it is well worth the work.
Handling the conflict in your relationship: What is ineffective?
Okay. Let’s talk about what doesn’t work so well. In the heat of the battle, we may be less likely to default to these behaviors if we are more aware.
Relationship tip: Watch your language
First of all, we may want to change our language. Do we want to be in battle with our partner? Do we want to work against each other, or do we want to manage this disagreement together? We are in dangerous territory if we start talking about winners and losers. Couples with good conflict resolution skills focus on the problem and not on the person. An all-out offensive against our partner is not our goal.
Relationship tip: Stay Present
Another behavior we want to steer away from is “flight.” You know the one. As soon as you start talking about certain subjects, your partner literally or figuratively leaves the room. Are you ever unwilling to engage your partner on a topic, and you avoid discussion?
John Gottman refers to this as “stonewalling.” Here are some signs of stonewalling.
Ignores you when you talk and does not respond to any questions (this can last weeks or even months)
Walks away or starts doing something else to get out of it if you start a serious conversation
Dismisses your concerns as if they are unimportant
Makes fun of you and patronizes what you say when you speak
Rolls their eyes or refuses to make eye contact at all
Refuses to take responsibility for giving you the silent treatment
Relationship Tip: Don’t expect your partner to read Your Mind
Lastly, you will want to talk directly to your partner about what is bothering you. Expecting your partner to read your mind or dropping subtle hints will most likely not have the effect you intend for them to have. Your partner may be interested in how you feel but may not be skilled in picking up on “what you are putting down.” In our more objective moments, we may realize that it is unfair to expect our partner to know what is going on in our minds.
You may feel that they should “just know” since you’ve expressed to them your needs on several occasions. While this may be true, you will more likely be happier with the outcome if you tell your partner that you need them to be affectionate without playing problem-solver.
Strategies for Resolving Conflict in Your Relationship
Which strategies work best when you are in conflict?
Relationship Strategy: Get Clear on How You Feel
One thing we advise couples to do is to get clear first on how they are feeling. This reflection will help you to see better the responsibility you bear in the conflict. Dr. Marni Feuerman advises couples to delay trying to get their partner to see their way until each person has expressed themselves fully. If you are not preparing your great counterpoint, you are more likely to hear the nuance in how your partner is feeling.
Relationship Strategy: Monitor your Body Language
While listening to your partner, watch for body language that communicates openness to your partner. You can learn an enormous amount about your partner by listening intently. When you explain yourself, use a calm tone and “I” statements instead of attacking your partner.
Relationship Strategy: Do you feel triggered?
Have you ever felt triggered during a conflict with your partner? You may be consciously aware of the origin. Don’t be surprised if it has little to do with the situation at hand. You may have stepped into the minefield of hurts from your past or childhood. Take some time to process where this trigger comes from.
You will want to verbalize your part in the conflict and offer your partner a sincere apology. You do not have to agree with their opinion.
If the conversation heats up too intensely, you can always agree to take a break and return to the discussion later. Both of you will more likely be in a better space to move forward if you have had an opportunity to calm down.
Relationship Strategy: Cliche, but true: Agree to Disagree
Don’t forget the 69% of unresolvable issues. You and your partner may need to agree to disagree to find progress. Offering and accepting compromise might have a role in how you manage the conflict.
Preserving your relationship and communicating value to your partner might be the best outcome of the conflict.
Words of Wisdom from John Gottman
Here is one last piece of wisdom from Gottman:
“The group with whom I’ve always been most fascinated is the one I call ‘marital masters’—folks who are so good at handling conflict that they make marital squabbles look like fun. It’s not that these couples don’t get mad and disagree. It’s that when they disagree, they’re able to stay connected and engaged with each other. Rather than becoming defensive and hurtful, they pepper their disputes with flashes of affection, intense interest, and mutual respect.”
Get Relationship Therapy to Help
Would you like for someone to help you get clear on what you are thinking and feeling? Would you like to see new and more helpful changes in your thinking and behavior patterns in handling conflict with your partner? Reach out and book your first counseling session whether you are in Evanston, Chicago or Illinois, we provide virtual relationship therapy.