4 essential rules for managing conflict in your relationships

4 essential rules for managing conflict in your relationships

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Did you know that conflict management skills are crucial when it comes to romantic relationships? Marianna Kocsany, a couples therapist at Bonding Therapy, tells you why that is and shares the best practices for managing conflicts with your partner.

Heated fights might be exciting on a movie screen - but they're much less fun in our own living rooms. Most of us haven't seen healthy ways of managing conflicts growing up, leaving us to lack positive examples and skill sets in this area. Luckily some modern scientists have been determined to understand how relationships work and they provide us with a lot of wisdom about conflict management!

Research on relationships

Researcher John Gottman found that 69 percent of the topics of disagreements we have in a relationship don't change throughout the years. However, those couples who have great skills in managing conflicts stay happy and satisfied in their relationships, while combative couples end up splitting up or growing cold with one another. Gottman managed to predict, with 85 percent accuracy, which couples ended up splitting up based on observing them in a 15-minute long conversation about a regular disagreement.

Gottman analysed the conflicts of couples and found a few phenomena that can determine how well the conversation goes. Based on this analysis, the Gottman Institute came up with a very practical method to help couples deal with conflict. Once couples learn this method (with the guidance of a therapist), their conflicts become less regular, more smooth and the partners become more satisfied in the relationship.

Here are the four most important rules to implement based on the method:

1. Avoid criticism

It is crucial how we approach our partners when we want to share what's in our hearts. In case you are experiencing a strong trigger, it is good to cool down first. Once you feel more calm, you will be able to start a conversation more gently (more information about how to calm down is mentioned in point #4). 

While expressing the problem, it is advisable to avoid criticism or judgement; it is better to share your feelings and needs instead. An example for a gentle start to a conversation could be, “When you did or didn't do X, that made me feel Y. I would appreciate if you did Z instead...”

It takes time to get used to express ourselves more vulnerably and use words that still feel natural. It also requires awareness of our own emotions and needs, as well as a safe environment to be able to express them freely.

2. Avoid defensiveness

Next to criticism, another counterproductive phenomenon in conflicts is defensiveness. When our partner brings a problem to the table, they need us to show them empathy and understanding. When they receive defensiveness instead, our partner gets even more frustrated and the conversation can easily turn into a "scoring game" of who is right or wrong.

The antidote for defensiveness is postponing sharing our own perspectives and first showing empathy ("I get that you feel upset") and taking responsibility ("I could have done X better"). These responses will make your partner feel understood and then they will be more open to hear our side of the story.

3. Avoid contempt

It is important to be aware of contempt, which is often expressed with small gestures such as eye rolling, making faces and sighing ... More explicit forms are villainising or describing our partner in an overly negative way in the heat of a fight.

Contempt is often the end result of a lot of unresolved conflict. Unfortunately, it can inflict major damage and sometimes - even after an apology - make it harder for partners to overcome it.

According to Gottman, contempt is the biggest predictor for divorce. One of the goals of couples therapy is to eliminate contempt by cultivating appreciation, fondness and admiration in the relationship.

4. Learn how to self-soothe

It is important to notice how your body feels when you are having a conflict. It can happen that at one point your blood pressure goes up, leaving you in an emotionally-flooded state. Physiological signs of being flooded can be: shallow breathing, pressure in the chest and muscle tension around the neck and shoulders.

When we get flooded, our cognitive functions are largely compromised and it is harder to feel empathy or to even comprehend other perspectives. Entering this state may cause some people to fight even harder. Others may start stonewalling, which is when a person shows little to no response, shuts down and turns away.

The remedy for these phenomena is to ask for a time out, actively self-soothe and to come back to discuss the issue later. It matters what kind of expression we choose when asking for a break! We don't want to further trigger our partners with expressions like “I am done with this conversation." Rather, we can give a gentle suggestion such as “I am feeling too stressed, can we take a break so I can calm down?”

During this break, it is very important that we don't stew in our anger but actively self-soothe instead. Some examples can be: deep breathing, stretching, going for a walk, exercising or listening to calming music.

Easier said than done? It is true that many couples need guidance and practice to fully integrate these techniques. That is why having sessions with a therapist who works with this method is highly advisable if you wanna transform your relationship! Are you interested? Get in touch with Marianna from Bonding Therapy, who has many years of experience working with the Gottman Method, or check out her website for more information.



Marianna Kocsany

Marianna is a couples therapist based in Amsterdam, helping both couples and singles to create and nurture healthy relationships. She graduated in Psychology( MA) in 2014 and did extra studies...

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