Conflict is uncomfortable and many avoid it at all costs. Yet however it manifests, conflict in relationships is inevitable. All couples have problems, disagreements, and friction—that’s the result of putting two different people together. It’s how couples manage their conflict that makes the difference.
Every disagreement has the power to transform the relationship. If you can view it as a shared experience that you made it through together, and emerged from stronger, you can use conflict as an opportunity to grow.
Flint needs friction to start a fire. Sharing your opposing viewpoints and being vulnerable enough to say, “this matters to me,” is an act of intimacy.
Emerge from conflicts closer to each other—forged in fire.
Some of the most-loved movies tell epic tales of the battle between good and evil, in which a relatable hero (“the good guy”) fights against a despicable villain (“the bad guy”).
Often it serves the story best if these characters lack nuance. We can’t always dig into the fear or trauma history that might be driving the villain’s decision-making, for example. It wouldn’t serve the central narrative of the Star Wars franchise to include any scenes of Emperor Palpatine in individual therapy.
But when you cast yourself and your partner in the roles of hero and villain, you rob yourself and your relationship’s story of much-needed nuance and clarity. As uncomfortable as it may be, embracing ambiguity may be the way forward.
If you find yourself casting your partner as the villain, it may be due to Negative Sentiment Override (NSO). NSO prevents you from giving someone the benefit of the doubt, and even causes you to perceive otherwise objective or uncharged actions as negative.
Let’s say your partner doesn’t respond to your text with their usual promptness. What story do you create around that (“They’re ignoring me on purpose,” “They’re mad at me. I did something wrong,” or, “Their phone must be off,”)? Do you make assumptions and go with them or do you check in about that story?
When you view your partner, or anyone you love, from a binary perspective, it forces them to tip into the role of “all good” or “all bad,” when in reality, nobody is just one thing.
Gridlocked conflict does not simply occur spontaneously. There are five phases a conflict conversation generally passes through on the way. According to John Gottman, those stages are:
1. Your dreams stand in opposition
2. Entrenchment of your opposing positions
3. Increased fears of accepting influence from your partner
4. Vilification (Four Horsemen)
5. Emotional disengagement from each other
All couples will face some forms of perpetual conflict. But those recurring issues do not need to become gridlocked. What you need to create movement or even a little wiggle room, is the willingness to explore the other person’s side of the conflict and what dreams are beneath their position.
For example, let’s say the conflict is about letting the dog sleep in the bed. One partner wants the dog in the bed and the other does not.
“I want the dog to sleep in the bed.”
What it might be about: comfort, security, nurturing, protection, a feeling of family, care.
What it’s not actually about: where the dog sleeps.
“I don’t want the dog to sleep in the bed.”
What it might be about: cleanliness, order, boundaries, respect, comfort, intimacy.
What it’s not actually about: dog hair in the sheets.
So what’s underneath each position in a gridlocked conflict? Is there room for understanding? Room for movement?
You’ve probably heard the old adage, “Nice or neutral, never nasty,” as advice for how to treat other people. But the reality is that even “neutral” can be invalidating and erode trust.
When responding to a bid, for example, you can turn towards, turn away, or turn against. We advise couples to turn towards as often as possible, rather than away or against. Neutrality, in response to a loved one expressing pain, is a form of turning away and can be even more devastating to the relationship than turning against.
Turning against is at the very least being clear and offering an opportunity for continued engagement and repair. Turning away is silence.
Neutrality in the face of conflict sends the message that your comfort or being right/”polite” is more important than an acknowledgment of the feelings being expressed. And that is a betrayal.
Why not say, “I am on your side”? What do you stand to lose if you stand with your partner? Brené Brown’s Engaged Feedback checklist suggests, “I know I’m ready to give feedback when…I’m ready to sit next to you rather than across from you.” Can you relinquish a “neutral” stance in order to really engage?
How can you practice attunement to build a greater understanding and respect for your partner’s inner world? Every individual is a complex and unique galaxy unto themselves. You could know someone a lifetime and only be attuned to one small piece of their inner world.
What do you assume you know about your partner that you might be wrong about? What deserves more exploration? What does your partner assume about you that might need clarification?
If you are needing to have a difficult conversation with a loved one or process conflict in your relationship, preparation is the best way to make sure it goes as well as possible.
Here are questions to ask yourself before you get into difficult conversations:
Am I ready to have this conversation? According to Dr. Julie Gottman, “processing” means talking about the specific conflict or incident without getting mired in the emotionality of it again.
Am I calm enough to have this conversation? Are you able to differentiate between your own emotions and the events that occurred?
Am I willing to seek to understand the experiences of this event outside of my own?
Am I willing to speak from my experience without trying to persuade?
Am I willing to ATTUNE to the feelings of others and what the event meant to them?
Can I be fully present for this conversation (am I in a space with limited distractions)?
94% of the time, the way a discussion starts determines the way it will end. Taking a pause to prepare yourselves before the conversation begins will allow you to go into it with mindful intention. Come ready.
Every human being deserves respect and equality. During a time when friends, families, and communities are suffering, it is crucial to understand how to listen and the value of listening well.
Listening means self-soothing to avoid becoming reactive or defensive.
Listening is allowing for ambiguity and discomfort.
Listening requires real empathy and the elimination of contempt.
As Dr. John Gottman explains, “real empathy comes from going: ‘You know, I understand how upset you are. It really hurts me that I’m messing up this way, and I’ve got to take some action.’ Real empathy comes from feeling your partner’s pain in a real way, and then doing something about it.”
You might think that in the research, the couples who had more conflict were in less happy relationships. But there was actually very little correlation between the frequency of conflict and happiness in the relationship.
All couples argue. It’s how you repair that makes all the difference.
A repair attempt is “any statement or action—silly or otherwise—that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.”
The thing that set the “Masters” of relationships apart from the “Disasters” was how they employed repairs—early and often. There aren’t a lot of hard and fast rules as to what types of repairs work “best,” as that is usually specific to your partner and your relationship.
There isn’t even a textbook style order to things (Step 1: argue, Step 2: repair). The Masters would often make small repairs and adjustments within a conflict conversation, as they were having it. This makes even an argument a collaborative experience in service of the relationship.
All this to say if you have an argument, it doesn’t mean you’re doomed. It means you have an opportunity to repair and connect.
It might be avoidance, revulsion, discomfort, longing, enthusiasm, confusion, some combination or none of the above.
Meta-emotions or, “how you feel about feelings,” are often a result of what your caregiver(s) taught you, intentionally or unintentionally. But your meta-emotions have lasting effects on your adult relationships.
So when we say that Emotion Coaching is for every age, we mean it.
The five steps of Emotion Coaching can also apply in your relationship:
1. Be aware of emotions (your own and your partner’s). 2. Recognize an expression of emotion as an opportunity for connection. 3. Listen with empathy and validate your partner’s feelings. 4. Label emotions with words. 5. Set limits (“It’s okay that you are angry but it is not okay to yell at me.” “I need 20 minutes to cool down.”)
How do you feel about emotions? Are there some emotions that are less comfortable than others? Do you always know what you’re feeling as you feel it or do you need time to process? What were you taught about emotions growing up?