- Expressing needs in a negative way
- Showing contempt for your partner
- Dealing with overwhelm
What can you do to improve your marriage or intimate relationship when your interactions are mostly negative and conflictual? While this is a common problem, the solutions are far from ordinary. Also, while conflict may appear to be a destructive force in relationships, it can enhance intimacy.
During a recent couples counseling session, Jena, 39, talked about how she and her fiancé, Tom, 40, tend to have the same arguments over and over again. She describes how they both blame each other and a distance-pursuer dance follows – which intensifies the pattern. She feels rejected when Tom withdraws and he often feels criticized when Jena approaches him to discuss their problems.
Jena reflects: “After a while, we’re no longer addressing the issue at hand and it creates a vicious cycle of negative feelings that never get resolved.”
Has this ever happened to you? It’s been so long since you’ve had fun with your partner, you don’t know where to start. Or, you often find yourself getting on the defensive, which only escalates the conflict.
A good disagreement
In Marriage Rules Dr. Harriet Lerner suggests that a good disagreement can clear the air as long as you are respectful and repair hurt feelings. She writes: “and it’s nice to know we can survive conflict and even learn from it. Many couples, however, get trapped in endless rounds of fighting and blaming that they don’t know how to get out of. When fights go unchecked and unrepaired, they can eventually erode love and respect which are the bedrock of any successful relationship.”
In a recent article posted to his website and to the Gottman Institute’s Relationship Blog, therapist Kyle Benson turns traditional thinking about conflict in a relationship on its head. In “Transforming Criticism Into Wishes: A Recipe for Successful Conflict,” Benson proposes that “in the heat of an argument, it’s far easier to say what we don’t want than what we do.” Indeed, this is a relatable and often inescapable dynamic between couples.
Benson draws on the work of couples’ therapy pioneer, Stan Tatkin, who believes that “people are better built for war than love.” Putting a finer point on Tatkin’s observation, Benson notes that communication during a conflict is too often out of step with finding a solution, writing that “we say, ‘Stop being so sad,’ instead of, ‘I wish you would tell me what’s making you sad.’”
Expressing needs in a negative way
Further elaborating on his perspective, Benson offers that “the problem with expressing needs in a negative way is it comes off like criticism. Despite what some people say, there is no such thing as constructive criticism. Criticism triggers a person to become defensive and protect themselves from an attack, which blocks the resolution of a conflict.”
So, as with so many crucial tools we can employ in the pursuit of happiness with our partners, the bottom line is effective and empathetic communication. To a great extent, where we start dictates where we end up in terms of conflict resolution. Benson points it perfectly, writing that “it doesn’t matter how much trust and intimacy there is in a relationship, it’s nearly impossible for someone to listen to a personal attack without becoming defensive.”
Taking this sort of active approach to managing conflict is brave, and it requires openness and vulnerability. But the aspects of relationships that are courageous are also the things most likely to lead to lasting love. By being honest and exposing our vulnerabilities, we’re fostering deeper trust and intimacy.
Ways to Deal Effectively With Conflict in Relationships:
Avoid blame, criticizing, or showing contempt for your partner.
Talking about specific issues will reap better results than attacking him or her. For instance, a complaint is: “I’m upset because you didn’t tell me about spending money on new clothes. We agreed to be open with each other and money is tight right now.” Versus a criticism: “You never tell me the truth. How can I trust you?” Avoid defensiveness and showing contempt for your partner (rolling your eyes, ridicule, name-calling, sarcasm, etc.). Starting conversations with a soft and curious tone such as, “Could I ask you something?” will lessen your partner’s defensiveness.
Avoid character assassinations.
Don’t attack your partner’s character, values, or core beliefs. Remember that anger is usually a symptom of underlying hurt, fear, and frustration so stop and reflect on your own emotions. Listen to your partner’s side of the story instead of focusing on your counterargument. Validate their perspective first – then share your viewpoint. When you feel like attacking your partner, ask yourself: what am I trying to accomplish?
Remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities.
And express your positive feelings out loud several times each day. In The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. Gottman suggests increasing the number of positive comments you make to your partner. Listen to their point of view and adopt his rule of five- to-one ratio of interactions – meaning for every negative interaction, have five positive ones during conflict.
State your need in a positive way.
Avoid trying to prove a point and examine your part in a disagreement. Listen to your partner’s requests and ask for clarification on issues than are unclear. Approach your partner with a positive request such as “I would appreciate you sharing your thoughts about purchases with me in advance.” State your feelings as neutrally as possible and transform any complaint about your partner into a positive need.
Use “I” statements rather than “You” statements that can come across as blameful.
Statements such as “I felt hurt when purchased the car without telling me,” rather than “You’re so selfish; you never think about me.”
Take a short break if you feel overwhelmed or flooded.
This will give you both time to calm down and collect your thoughts so you can have a more meaningful dialogue with your partner. Be sure to make a plan to discuss your issues within a day or two.
Give your partner the benefit of the doubt.
Instead of focusing on your partner’s flaws and looking to blame him or her, try spending your energy fostering a deeper connection. Avoid building a case against your partner. Instead, express positive feelings and gestures of love often and become skilled at demonstrating acceptance and gratitude in your words and actions.
Practice having a recovery conversation after an argument.
Daniel B. Wile, Ph.D. believes that your focus needs to be on listening to your partner’s perspective, collaborating, building intimacy, and restoring safety and goodwill. A recovery conversation can reveal information about your relationship and restore intimacy. Be careful not to rekindle the fight and be respectful of each other in your gestures, requests, and comments.
Once you’ve learned to manage conflicts effectively, it becomes much easier to repair disputes and to get back on track. If you find yourself struggling, tell your partner what is on your mind. For instance, say something like “Can you hold me or tell me you love me? I feel like attacking you but I don’t want to do that.” Most of the time, you’ll restore intimacy by being honest and open with your partner during times of high conflict or distress. It takes time and practice!
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