In this final installment of three columns examining Dr. John Gottman’s research on successful relationships, the focus is on what he discovered about how successful couples approach conflict resolution.
One of his discoveries was that most conflicts in successful relationships – 69 percent to be exact – are never resolved at all. Tom is a neat freak, and his husband Bill is a total slob. Tom grew up with alcoholic parents who lived in complete disorder, and for him a neat and orderly home represents safety and stability. Bill had a military father, who ran his home like a barracks. For him, a little messiness and disarray represent freedom and relaxation. Tom and Bill will never see eye to eye on housekeeping. What they can hope to do is, first, to understand how the other man’s position is rooted in deep personal experience, which may help each of them take the other’s behavior less personally. Then they can work at reaching workable compromises, and learn to treat the inevitable periodic tensions over this issue with some lightness and humor. Most perennial conflicts in long-term relationships are like that. They usually reflect deep-seated differences in outlook and personality, and successful couples learn to work with them rather than resolve them.
But what about the conflicts that can be resolved? Gottman’s research highlighted five guidelines which make successful resolution more likely:
- Soften your startup. Discussions end the way they begin. If you start with name-calling, yelling, or accusations, that’s how the conversation will end. Successful resolution is more likely if you speak calmly and with respect. Complain, but don’t blame. Confront, but don’t attack. Focus on the situation, not on your partner’s character. Describe what you don’t like, but don’t evaluate or judge. Make statements that start with “I” instead of “You.” Say “I’d like you to listen to me,” not “You never listen to me.” Couch your request within an appreciative statement about what your partner has done right in the past. And don’t store things up. If you wait too long, the issue will just fester in your mind.
- Learn to make and receive repair attempts. The first thing you’re taught when you’re learning how to drive is how to stop the car. Stepping on the brake is an important skill in relationships, too. When you get off on the wrong foot, or find yourself caught in recriminations, you can head off a lot of grief if you know how to stop. Gottman calls these breaks repair attempts. A repair attempt is anything which tends 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 “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 your partner offers a repair attempt, your job is to recognize and accept it. Understand it as an attempt to improve things, not as an interruption in the argument.
- Soothe yourself and each other. When couples are in a heated argument, both parties often have trouble recognizing each other’s repair attempts because their bodies are flooded with intense anger, hurt, or anxiety. When flooding occurs, the best thing you can do is to stop trying to resolve the issue at hand and focus instead on relaxing yourself and soothing each other. Put the issue on hold until you both feel calm and soothed.
- Compromise. If you find yourself sitting with folded arms and shaking your head while your partner talks, you’re not going to resolve anything. You don’t have to accept everything your other half says, but it’s crucial that you be open to her or his influence, and that you be willing to consider another point of view.
- Be tolerant of each other’s faults. If you find yourself on a campaign to change your partner, you’re on the wrong track. Conflict resolution isn’t about one person seeing the error of his or her ways. It’s about finding common ground and ways to accommodate one another. In all our relationships there will be some things we just don’t like about the other person, and usually those things never change. Accepting that reality is indispensable in any mature, successful relationship.