Typically, I explain to couples in my therapy practice who are caught in a pattern of ongoing disputes, that conflict is an inevitable part of an intimate relationship. I also tell them and that one of the main ingredients of a healthy, long-lasting partnership is making a commitment to repair hurt feelings and bounce back from arguments quickly.
In over 40 years of research in his classic “Love Lab” studies, Dr. John Gottman discovered that the number one solution to marital problems is to get good at repair skills. He explains that repair attempts allow a couple to get back on track after a dispute and are an important way to avoid resentment. A repair attempt is any statement or action – verbal, physical, or otherwise – intended to diffuse negativity and keep a conflict from escalating.
6 Steps to getting good at repair skills:
- Discuss specific issues rather than blaming each other. 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 working late tonight. We agreed to be open with each other and I was worried.” Versus a criticism: “You never tell me where you are. How can I trust you?” Avoid defensiveness and showing contempt for your partner (rolling your eyes, ridicule, name-calling, sarcasm, etc.) and character assassinations such as “You are so selfish.”
- Start a conversation with a soft and curious tone such as, “Could I ask you something?” will lessen your partner’s defensiveness. Dr. John Gottman reminds us that criticism is extremely damaging to a marriage and that talking about specific issues with a soft approach will reap better results.
- Don’t issue ultimatums. Avoid saying things you will regret later. Being vulnerable with your partner can make you feel exposed but it is an important ingredient in a trusting, intimate relationship. Be assertive yet open in your attempts to negotiate for what you want from your partner. Both individuals in a relationship deserve to get some (not all) of their needs met.
- Approach conflict with a problem-solving attitude. 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. Discuss expectations to avoid misunderstandings. Engage in a conversation with your partner that is productive rather than shutting down or criticizing him or her.
- Take a short break if you feel 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. Author David Akiva, encourages couples to develop a Hurt-Free Zone Policy which is a period when criticism is not allowed between partners. Without it, couples usually feel less defensive and as a result, feelings of hurt and rejection dissolve within 3 to 4 weeks.
- Have a brief recovery conversation after an argument. Psychologist Daniel B. Wile believes that after a fight, your focus needs to be on listening to your partner’s perspective, collaborating, building intimacy, and restoring safety and good will. These actions will help you to develop good repair skills.
A recovery conversation can reveal information about your relationship, lead to a resolution of the fight, and restore intimacy. It’s best to wait until both partners have calmed down before starting it and to be careful not to rekindle the fight. If you stay focused on the present this will prevent rehashing an argument.
Be sure to give your partner the benefit of the doubt. Instead of focusing on your his or her weaknesses, try spending your energy fostering a deeper connection. Make it a habit to express positive feelings and gestures of love often and become skilled at demonstrating acceptance and gratitude in your words and actions.
Can a Marriage Thrive with Unresolved Conflict?
Dr. Gottman advises us that couples can live with unsolvable differences about ongoing issues in their relationship as long as they aren’t deal breakers. His research informs us that 69% of problems in a marriage don’t get resolved but can be managed successfully.
Once you have gotten better at recovering after a dispute, it becomes easier to restore loving feelings with your partner. If you find yourself struggling, tell him or her what is on your mind. For instance, say something like “I feel flooded right now. Can you hold me or tell me you love me? I feel like attacking you but I don’t want to do that.”
Couples who discuss concerns in a timely and respectful way and adopt a “we’re in this together” mindset have a better chance of creating a happy long-lasting partnership. They are resilient and don’t let anger destroy the loving feelings and affection that brought them together in the first place.
Follow Terry on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s award winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy A Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship was published in January of 2016 by Sourcebooks. Terry’s forthcoming book The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around was published by Sounds true in February of 2019.
I’d love to hear from you and answer your questions about relationships, divorce, marriage, and remarriage. Please ask a question here. Thanks! Terry