This is the second of a five-part series on effective methods for resolving conflicts in relationships, based on the work of Dr. John Gottman, one of the country’s foremost researchers on the dynamics of relationships. Last time I talked about his insight that a conflict discussion generally ends on the same tone with which it began, which makes a soft startup crucially important. This time I want to discuss his views on making and receiving repair attempts.
The first thing we’re taught when we’re learning to drive is how to stop the car. Stepping on the brake is an important skill in relationships, too. When we get off on the wrong foot, or find ourselves in a cycle of recriminations, we can head off a lot of grief if we know how to stop. Gottman calls these breaks repair attempts. A repair attempt is anything you do to de-escalate the tension. It can consist of suggesting a time-out. It can be a statement like “May I take that back?” or “Let me try again” or “I’m sorry I spoke so harshly.” It can be a request, such as “Please be more gentle with me,” or “Please help me calm down.”
When we don’t know how to put on the brakes, conflicts can easily escalate out of control, and result in an emotional state that Gottman calls flooding. Everyone has experienced the pain of being flooded in an argument. The body is overwhelmed with a confused jumble of signals. The threat system is activated, causing breathing to become constricted and muscles to tense and stay tense. We have intense feelings of anger or fear. The heart beats faster, and once its rate reaches 95-l00 beats per minute, the adrenal glands go into action delivering adrenalin. The state of increased excitement that results from all of this interferes with listening and with the understanding needed to re-establish trust and intimacy. It’s especially important for gay male couples to know that the cardiovascular system of men is generally more reactive to perceived threats than that of women, and that men generally take longer than women to return to equilibrium once flooding has been triggered.
And once the threshold of flooding has been crossed, making the transition back to equilibrium can be very difficult. Because people who are flooded don’t feel safe, they’re often more inclined to try to protect themselves by being combative and by trying to win the argument rather than trying to compromise or listen. So the first step to take when flooding has happened is to recognize it. The next step is to make the flooding the issue rather than the content of the argument. Do this by re-focusing the conversation on the process taking place between you and how you’re feeling. You may say something like “I need things to be calmer right now,” or “I’m not feeling safe right now.” Male couples, especially, may need a time-out at this point to breathe deeply, go for a walk, or just be quiet. Putting on the brakes can prevent a stampede of negativity. Gottman’s research shows that it generally takes five positive interactions to repair the damage done by one negative interaction, so keeping the number of negative interactions as small as possible is important for the overall health of any relationship.
When both partners are calmer it’s time to listen and speak non-defensively. Being able to re-channel the destructive habit of defensiveness is one of the most valuable transitions you can make. Replacing defensiveness with listening, and then with speaking without affixing blame can help “reintroduce praise and admiration into your relationship.” Emphasizing areas of agreement (“I agree with part of what you’re saying”; and focusing on things you appreciate about your partner (“One thing I admire about you is…” or simply “I love you,”) all help to repair the rift.
And when your partner makes a repair attempt, the most important thing to do is just to accept it. According to Gottman, the majority of conflicts in relationships (69 percent, to be exact) are never resolved at all, so having as your priority trying to win every time there’s a disagreement is both an unrealistic and an ultimately destructive goal. When we remember to see a return to cooperation and affection as more important than winning, we’re in a better position to build stronger and more resilient relationships. Validate your partner’s repair attempt, and view it, not as an interruption in the argument, but as an attempt to make things better. Validation – that is, “putting yourself in your partner’s shoes and imagining his or her emotional state,” is one of the most important factors in making your partner feel loved. Listening, accepting and respecting your partner’s feelings, even if you have to acknowledge that you’re struggling to understand them, all greatly advance the repair of a relationship; this is especially true when they’re coupled with accepting responsibility and being willing to apologize for any hurt you’ve caused.
Next time: Soothe yourself and each other.