By Kyle Benson
Conflict is inevitable in every relationship. Psychologist Dan Wile says it best in his book After the Honeymoon: “When choosing a long-term partner, you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unresolvable problems.” However, Dr. Gottman has found that nearly 1/3 of all conflicts can be resolved with the right approach.
The popular approach to conflict resolution, advocated by many marriage therapists, is to put yourself in your partner’s shoes, listen to what they say, and communicate with empathy that you understand their perspective. It’s a decent method if you can do it.
But most couples can’t. Even happily married couples. After studying couples for the last 40 years, Dr. John Gottman has recognized that even happy couples do not follow the experts’ rules of communication.
By studying what these couples did, Dr. Gottman developed a new model for solving your solvable problems in an intimate relationship.
Step 1: Soften Your Start-Up
How a conversation starts predicts how it will end. Watch how a harsh start-up influences this conversation:
Kim: Once again, I come home from work and have to pick up after you. (criticism)
Kris: Here we go again. I’m such a slob, right? I clean the kitchen counters all the time.
Kim: Then why do I have to remind you to clean the dishes in the sink or take out the trash? It’s frustrating when our house smells disgusting! Don’t worry about it today. I already did it, or were you too busy browsing Facebook to notice? (contempt)
Kris: Hey. Come on. I hate cleaning. I know you do, too. I have an idea. (repair attempt)
Kim rolls her eyes. (more contempt)
Kris: I think we need some connection. Let’s take a vacation so you can be waited on?
Kim: Seriously? We can’t afford a maid, much less a vacation.
A harsh start-up begins with the Four Horsemen and causes flooding and increased emotional distance that can strain the marriage.
Soft start-ups do not contain the Four Horsemen. When a partner starts the conversation gently, it communicates respect and causes both partners to feel positive about themselves and their marriage.
Here are some suggestions to ensure your start-up is soft:
- Take responsibility. “I share some responsibility for this…”
- Complain without blame and state a positive need. “Here’s how I feel…about a specific situation and here’s what I need…” (positive need, not what you don’t need)
- Start with “I” instead of “You.” I statements are less critical and don’t make the listener as defensive as “you” statements.
- Describe what is happening. Don’t judge or blame. Communicate what you see will help your partner from feeling attacked.
- Be polite. Use “please” and “I would appreciate it if…”
- Be appreciative. Recognize what you appreciate in your partner.
- Don’t let things build up. If you do, it’ll escalate in your mind until you blow-up.
The secret to avoiding harsh start-ups is to work on the first four principles in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. If your spouse tends to start conflicts harshly, make sure they are feeling known, respected, loved, and that you are willing to accept influence. So pay attention to minor bids for connection.
When “It’s your turn to take out the garbage, can you take it out please?” is ignored, your partner’s request may escalate to “What is wrong with you? Are you deaf? Take out the garbage.”
If you go straight for the jugular, you’re going to get either war or retreat on your partner’s part instead of a productive discussion. See how a softened start-up compares.
Kim: I feel like our house is a mess and we’re having family over tonight. (describing) I’m angry cause I feel like I am doing all the cleaning by myself. I should have asked sooner (taking responsibility). I need you to help me vacuum the living room? (positive need).
Kris: I understand. I hate cleaning up too and I’d be willing to vacuum and even clean the bathroom for you.
Kim: You’re such a big help. (appreciation). Thank you love. (politeness)
Kris: After the family is gone, let’s go out for our favorite ice cream!
Kim: I’m so in!
Step 2: Learn to Send and Receive Repair Attempts
When Kris said, “I clean the kitchen counters all the time” Kim could have said, “You’re right, you do.” Doing this would have been a repair attempt and de-escalated the tension, allowing Kris to be more receptive to finding a solution.