Guest blogger Kate Nesterwitz, LMFT. Read more about her at http://www.katenesterwitzlmft.com
Conflict within a committed relationship is normal. Tensions arise over big issues and tiny ones, and often have more to do with how we feel about ourselves than with what the other person is doing or saying. When we react out of fear, anger, exhaustion, frustration, defensiveness, or any other negative state, we limit the likelihood of a positive resolution because the chances are high that, when confronted in this way, our partner will respond from a similar negative state.
However, even when you find yourself in that place, you can improve the odds of a favorable outcome by implementing the highly effective strategies outlined here.
1. Introduce the discussion with a softened start-up
This refers to HOW a topic is brought up, specifically within the first 3 minutes. Start softly and kindly, perhaps first talking about a more benign topic to set a positive tone for the conversation. Complaints that are brought up with a harsh tone, hostile body language, or accusations will inevitably lead down an unproductive road.
2. Use “I” Statements
None of us likes to be accused of doing something wrong. Anytime someone comes at us with accusations (“YOU didn’t do the dishes,” “YOU screwed up again,” “I can’t stand when YOU….”) our natural response is to become defensive. We then get stuck in a debate over who did what, completely losing sight of the original complaint. When we use “I” statements to explain how we feel about a situation, we are speaking for ourselves, sharing our own truth and reality, which is not up for debate.
Try using this format:
“I feel… (followed by a feelings word) about…” (whatever the complaint may be.) “I need….” (be specific about what you need to be different.) This allows your partner to come through for you rather than just bombarding him or her with the things they are doing wrong.
3. Practice Self Soothing
This is more important than most couples realize. When we get very upset about something, we experience “flooding,” as in getting flooded with emotions. This is not merely a concept; it is a measurable biological response. The heart beats faster, blood pressure goes up, and we find it harder to think straight. In this state, we are all vulnerable to behaving in regrettable ways. Name calling, accusations, cursing, violence, defensiveness or saying things we don’t mean almost always happen while in a flooded state. All of these behaviors are incredibly destructive and harmful to the relationship.
So what do you do when you start to feel flooded? Take a break! Remove yourself from the situation using a cue to your partner that you are flooded. “I am going in the bedroom for 20 minutes to calm down because I’m overwhelmed and don’t want to say anything I don’t mean.”
The Gottman Method, based on the extensive research of relationship expert Dr. John Gottman, recommends taking at least a 20-minute break, but no more than 24 hours. Always promise to return to the conversation once you are calmer to avoid leaving your partner feeling abandoned or rejected when you step out. Do deep breathing, go for a walk, watch a funny show or play on your phone — any calming activity that distracts you from the topic and helps you speak from a calmer perspective.
4. Accept influence…
…aka admit when you are wrong, apologize, and be open to your partner’s input. Gottman’s research has shown time and time again that successful couples accept influence from their partners. This means they can apologize for making their partner upset when they didn’t mean to, they are open to feedback, and they can empathize with how their partner feels.
Say things like “I can see why that would bother you” or “I never thought of it that way. I’m sorry I didn’t realize” or “That seems important to you so I’m open to figuring it out.” All of those lines allow for further dialogue and show that you respect how your partner feels.
Relationships are complicated. There will always be some complaint or something that needs to be worked out. The above tools are ways for those conversations to be more productive and respectful. If this is very difficult for you, it may be beneficial to get some support from a trained Couples Therapist who can help you develop these skills. For more information, contact Carapace Counseling.
Stay tuned for Part II in which we will cover these additional aspects of successfully managing conflict with your spouse or partner:
- The 4 Horseman of the Apocalypse
- Making effective repairs