What causes conflict in a relationship? The answer is everything. Everything has a potential to cause a conflict between you and your partner. However, the most common conflicts that couples have are money, sex, children and housework.
Conflict is Healthy
Conflict is inevitable. In a stable relationship, conflict occurs approximately twice a week, even in the happiest relationships. It is the absence of conflict that is unhealthy, but conflict management is crucial.
Relationship Problems Occur Due to Absence of Positivity and Positive Affect
John Gottman suggests that the ratio of positivity to negativity needs to be 5:1 in a healthy relationship. When a conflict rises, try to come up with 5 positive moments that you experienced with your partner, or 5 positive traits that stood out to you in the past week. This is important because Gottman suggests, “It is not the presence of negativity, but the absence of positivity causes a relationship problem”.
“We have a conflict, yes. But he also gave me that back massage this week, we had a wonderful time while watching our favorite show last night, he made me laugh while I was driving, he did the grocery shopping to cook my favorite dish, and he told me I look beautiful when I woke up this morning”.
When you have difficulty coming up with 5 positive affirmations after having a conflict, building the positive experiences should be the focus of your conflict management.
Avoid Belligerence and Passive-Aggression
Gottman refers to “belligerence” as the honorary horseman of his original Four Horsemen. Please visit my previous post titled, Four Communication Habits That Lead to Relationship Failure to learn more about the Four Horsemen.
Passive-aggressiveness and belligerence tend to go hand in hand. Both leave no space for tenderness. Belligerence is provocation. Often it is a way of expressing your anger with aggression. On the other hand, passive aggression is a way of expressing your anger with indirect statements, such as implications, rather than with aggression. Both are equally harmful in a relationship. I provide some examples below.
Passive Aggression: “I won’t speak for the rest of the day if this is what you want. You told me to leave you alone.”
Belligerence: “What kind of man are you that you told your wife to leave you alone?”
Do Not Engage in Mind Reading
In every type of communication there is a private and public experience. If you are at the recipient end of the communication, there is the “impact” of what your partner has just said, and this impact is private. This means that unless you tell your partner how their statement made you feel, it is not possible for your partner to know the impact of their statements on you. Similarly, if you are on the delivering end of the communication, there is the “intention” which is private to you. Until you make your partner know what your intentions are, it may not be possible for your partner to know why you said what you said.
The best possible way to avoid mind reading is to ask your partner, “What do you mean?”, rather than assuming you completely understood everything your partner said.
Prefer Soft Startup Over Harsh Startup
Gottman predicts the result of a conflict by looking at the first 5 minutes of a conversation between partners. How the conflict starts is the main predictor of how it is going to end. When a conversation starts with criticism or sarcasm, it is called a “harsh startup”. Harsh startups are usually general, while soft startups are specific.
Harsh Startup: “Would you take care of the dog for once?” (general statement).
Startup: “I’d appreciate if you could take care of the dog.” (specific statement).
Learn Speaker Listener Techniques: Active Listening
Active listening is an intentional effort to listen to your partner by being attentive, engaged and responsive. Active listening is based on “I-statements”, “paraphrasing”, “giving feedback”, and “switching roles”. I am going to explain the first two.
I-statements help you to express how you feel without pointing your finger to your partner, therefore a successful I-statement includes a feeling word. For example, “I felt hurt when you hung up on me” is an I-statement. However, “I think you were very rude when you hung up on me” is not an I-statement because it doesn’t have a feeling word. Similarly, “I think you should treat me better” is not an I-statement, it is a should-statement and these statements are harmful in a relationship.
Paraphrasing is an effective communication style because it is your chance to see if there is any misunderstanding. Here is a simple guideline to help you paraphrase.
“What I hear you saying is …”, “So, from your point of view …”, “Let me see if I got it. So, you are telling me …”
Paraphrasing shows your partner that you listened and heard what they said.
If you are struggling with managing the conflict in your relationship, please schedule a couples therapy session.