This is the third 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. In the first article I talked about his insight that a conflict discussion generally ends on the same tone with which it began, which makes a soft startup of a discussion crucially important. Last time I went over his suggestions on how to make and receive repair attempts when the communication goes off track. This time I want to talk about the practice of soothing oneself and each other.
Even under the best of circumstances, life is difficult and stressful; and we all want our relationships to be oases of refuge from our daily struggles. We want them to provide enjoyment, comfort, rest, and safety. Since every relationship has some discord, that wish can’t be perfectly realized. But if the discord begins to dominate the interactions, so that your most intimate relationship is associated with anger, bickering, and blaming, you’ll inevitably start asking yourself “Why the hell am I in this?” On the other hand, if you frequently have the experience of being calmed and soothed by your partner you won’t see him or her as a trigger of more stress in your life, and instead associate your partnership with feeling safe and relaxed. That will do more than all the conflict-resolution skills in the world to strengthen it.
The biggest pitfall in conflict discussions is that they can trigger flooding, in which the body’s threat system is activated, the blood pressure rises, and we experience anxiety and anger. When this occurs, we feel overwhelmed both emotionally and physically, and go into self-protection mode. Then it’s typical to feel righteous indignation (“I don’t have to take this anymore”) or innocent victimhood (“Why is he always doing this to me?”). In this state, it’s hard even to recognize your partner’s repair attempts, much less respond to them appropriately.
So the first order of business when you’re flooded is to calm down, and the most direct way to do this is just to take a time-out from the discussion. In one of his experiments, Gottman interrupted couples fifteen minutes into their discussion of a contentious issue and told them that he needed to adjust the equipment he was using to videotape their conversation. He asked them not to talk about their issue, but just to read magazines for half an hour. When they started talking again, their heart rates were significantly lower and their interactions were more productive.
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 you or your partner is flooded the most important thing to do is to stop talking (or quarreling) about the issue at hand, and calm down. The break should last at least twenty minutes, since it will take at least that long for the body to calm down. During that period, do your best to avoid thoughts of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood. Spend the time doing something soothing and distracting, such as listening to music, exercising, or meditating. Gottman regularly schedules guided meditation and visualization exercises into the conflict-resolution section of every workshop that he runs. He reports “Invariably I get the same response from participants. At first they moan and groan about being forced to relax….And yet once they do the exercise, they realize how powerful and helpful it really is. Suddenly everybody in the room relaxes. You can see the difference in how couples relate to each other. Their voices get softer; there is more chuckling. Soothing themselves has made them better able to work on their conflicts as a team rather than as adversaries.”
I believe that many couples place too much emphasis or “processing” their conflicts. Of course it is sometimes important to take a stand or defend oneself, and it can be productive to talk some issues out, but the fact is that the vast majority of conflicts in relationships (69% according to Gottman’s research) are never resolved at all. Successful couples mostly learn to live with their differences and to handles them with a certain level of humor and acceptance. Instead of focusing on winning arguments, then, it can be a lot wiser and more effective to focus on learning what makes you and your partner feel safe and relaxed. Whether it’s simple words of comfort, massages, exercising together, or a vigorous roll in the hay (for many people, sex is one of the most soothing experiences they have) the point is to do all in your power to make your connection with one another a place of joy and comfort in your lives rather than a place of strife.
Next Time: Compromise