CONFLICT SKILLS FOR RELATIONSHIPS (OR, HOW TO STAY ON THE TEAM)
Conflict. It’s a part of every intimate relationship. Sometimes it feels like it’s a big part – too big. Often, the same issue comes up over and over and you feel like you’re beating your head against the wall. Sometimes it seems like you and your partner are on two different teams. Take heart – you’re in good company. According to relationship researcher John Gottman, 69 percent of every couple’s arguments are about perpetual problems, meaning those issues are here to stay. But that doesn’t mean they have to cause so many conflicts.
Let’s start with resolvable problems, which make up the other 31 percent of relationship conflict. These include issues like who picks the kids up from soccer practice and how to decide which house to buy. We all try to resolve these problems, and sometimes we even try different things, and it still doesn’t work! The first thing to consider here is how you start talking about it. This especially applies to women who bring up an issue 80 percent of the time. You want to use a soft startup, because starting with anger or criticism is likely to put your partner into defensive mode immediately. “Soft” doesn’t mean “hesitant” or “wishy-washy,” it simply means respectful. You can imagine your partner’s response to, “I can’t believe you didn’t put the dog food away! Now he’s torn into the bag. Great.” Starting with “I” forces you to own your feelings instead of blaming your partner for them: “I’m annoyed the dog got into the bag of dog food. Can you please put it away after you feed him? Or try being lighthearted: “Thanks for feeding the dog. Don’t forget to put the bag away when you’re done, otherwise Roofus gets a free-for-all.” It’s easier to do this when you remember that your partner probably does a whole lot more right than wrong.
Accepting influence is a critical skill that men tend to struggle with more than women. What it doesn’t mean: letting your partner call the shots. What it does mean: remembering that you married a partner, someone who you respect and value. Of course you want them to make you think! This skill can be particularly hard to use when in conflict, but as with all conflict skills, that’s when it matters most. If you can listen to your partner, consider what they’re saying, and give the occasional, “I see what you mean” or “good point,” you are more likely to find yourself facing a teammate at the end of a discussion rather than an enemy at the end of a fight.
It’s important to be able to de-escalate during an argument because it keeps things from getting out of control. To do this one issues repair attempts, and they can come in many forms: taking a break when things get too heated, using humor to lighten the situation, apologizing. Gottman compares repair attempts to rumble strips on the side of the road: it warns everyone that the team is going off course, and gives you a chance to get back on track. Accepting influence during an argument can take it down a notch (or three).
Compromise is another critical skill. When headed into compromise you should know what you must have and what you would merely prefer. It requires great respect for your partner who will also come to the table with must-haves. Compromise includes sharing power, meeting in the middle, and sometimes being creative. Do you really HAVE to have dinner at the Italian place tonight when your partner really wants Thai? Maybe you could try that that new burger/sushi fusion restaurant and satisfy everyone. Or maybe you go to their place tonight and your place next week. Above all, compromise means not trying to win. Your goal is to have both people feel like winners as much as possible. Otherwise you’re in a competition, not a relationship.
But what about the other 69 percent of relationship conflicts? How do we deal with those? Perpetual problems arise from differences in needs and personality. For example, a couple with one strong extrovert and one strong introvert might frequently battle about how often they go to large social gatherings, how long they stay, if they should drive separately in case one wants to leave early, etc. Using soft startups, repair attempts, compromise, and accepting influence each and every time there’s an Evite in your inbox is going to get tiresome and isn’t likely to be effective. Those skills need to be used, but they’re not enough. The addition of two more skills leads to real success with perpetual problems: dialogue and acceptance. If you can keep up a neutral or positive dialogue about the perpetual problem you can avoid gridlock, where there’s either icy silence or unproductive arguing. Gridlock will block progress and breed negativity. It’s easier to avoid gridlock if you’ve accepted this unwanted behavior or mindset of your partner. He’s turned on every single light in the house again? Your closet looks like a bomb made of all her clothes hit it? Try looking at it with amusement, a mental eye roll with a head shake and a smile, and remember that your partner is NOT this quirk. This quirk is just a small part of your partner.
One last point, and this is crucial: remember that you two are a team. Consider all these skills and imagine using them under two conditions – with someone you see as being on your team and with someone you see as working against you. No matter the problem, it is far easier to approach it with someone you see as your teammate. When the relationship feels really hard and you don’t know whether to throw a tantrum or throw in the towel – take a deep breath, take a pause, remember you’re not alone, and think of this Motto: Never pass up a chance to be on the team.