Are you having difficulty managing conflict in your relationship? Well, there is good news. In his more than 40 years of groundbreaking research with more than 3000 couples, Dr. John Gottman has discovered a new model for managing couple conflict. He found that all couples fight: the difference between what he calls the “Masters” and the “Disasters” of Relationships is how they manage conflict. The good news is that these skills require very little practice because we all have them. They are the same skills that we use with strangers; we just forget to use them with our partner. We are talking about good manners. They imply treating our partner with the same respect that we offer third persons. They are the skills that the “Masters of Relationship” use.
Skill #1: Practice Physiological Self-Soothing
Conflict discussions can provoke a sense of being overwhelmed or flooded, emotionally and physically. Probably, we feel outraged or that we are victims. And the body becomes disturbed. In general, our heart starts beating stronger and faster, we start to sweat, and we contain our breathing. When this happens, it is highly improbable that we can have a productive conversation. Therefore, it is necessary to stop the conversation and physiological soothe ourselves and/or our partner. When couples practice physiological self-soothing, discussions become less escalated, gentler, and, therefore, safer. This helps to make the relationship a safe port in the storm, and not the storm itself.
Skill #2: Use Softened Start-up
John Gottman’s research reveals that how a couple conflict discussion begins largely determines what will happen during the entire discussion. The predictive role of harsh or softened start-up is often played by women. This is because they are the ones who bring up difficult themes and insist that they be resolved 80% of the time. When there is irritability and a lack of response by the partner in the relationship, harsh start-up is the result. However, when there is emotional connection, it is easier to use softened start-up. Try to avoid harsh start-up and practice softened start-up (how to soften start-up will be the theme of another blog).
Skill #3: Repair and De-escalate
By repair we mean the verbal and non-verbal gestures that help us to keep a discussion on a healthy track. Repair can be the communication about your feelings, of the need and desire to calm down, or about appreciation. It can also be about moving towards your partner’s position, stopping the action, asking for forgivingness, or accepting responsibility. It is a communication that says to your partner, “You, and what you think and feel are important to me. We’ll get through this.”
Skill #4: Listen to Your Partner’s Underlying Skills and Dreams
Behind each of your positions there are deeply held feelings and dreams. Take turns asking each other questions to bring these ups, and just listen to your partner’s answers, as a friend would. Be curious and interested in your partner’s answers and seek to truly understand their feelings and dreams. Avoid persuasion and problem-solving.
Skill #5: Accept Influence
Accepting influence from your partner simply means expressing agreement with at least part of what your partner is asking and demonstrating willingness to move towards a compromise. A central part of accepting influence is uncovering and understanding the meaning of the meaning of your partner’s position in the couple conflict. Research has shown that people who don’t accept influence wind up creating bad will and being powerless in relationships. This is especially true for men. According to John Gottman: “When a man is not willing to share power with his partner, there is an 81% probability that his marriage will end in separation or divorce” (Gottman & Silver, 1999, p. 116).
Skill #6: Compromise
The Compromise step involves developing a common way of thinking: creating a third solution out of the two positions. For this to work, you must use the Aikido principle: Yield to Win.
If you would like to learn more about managing couple conflict and have some practice with these six skills, attend a Gottman Art and Science of Love Weekend Workshop for Couples. Happy Couples Healthy Communities is offering its next Art and Science of Love Weekend Workshop in Jacksonville, Florida, December 2-3, 2017.
Gottman, J., & Schwartz Gottman, J. (2013). The Art & Science of Love: A Weekend Workshop for Couples. Seattle: The Gottman Institute.
Gottman, J. & Silver, N. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York, NY: Three Rivers.
© 2020 Michael Brown, MSC, LMFT, dba Happy Couples Healthy Relationships