Relationship Minute: Differentiation

It can be hard not to take things personally, especially within a conflict discussion. The risk of feeling personally wounded may cause some couples to become conflict-avoidant.

As Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., explains in this interview, conflict avoidance is a function of fusion—when one partner attempts to “merge” with the other.

“One way of doing this is becoming more like your partner in hopes of being loved. There’s a deep fear that says, ‘If I express my needs and have different needs than my partner, I’m going to be abandoned.’

The other conflict-avoidant stance is loving your partner at arm’s length. The fear in this stance says, ‘If I become more open and vulnerable, I’m going to get swallowed up and lose my sense of self.’” 

The opposite of fusion is differentiation— first acknowledging that you and your partner are two, separate individuals with different identities, and then developing a secure way to relate to each other.

The more differentiated you are, the less likely you are to take things as personally. You can still empathize, but don’t feel the burden of identifying with your partner’s feelings and can separate how you feel. This also keeps you from expecting your partner to take ownership of your individual feelings.

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The Relationship Minute is from The Gottman Institute. You can sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning. 

Relationship Minute: Practicing non-defensiveness

Responding and listening without getting defensive takes practice. It’s difficult! For so many, defensiveness is just a knee-jerk reaction rooted in the need to protect the idea of yourself as a “good person” with the right intentions. And it’s good to assume positive intent, especially when you’re interacting with your partner.

So it’s important to practice taking a step back and making sure you understand the situation before jumping to your own defense.

In the last Relationship Minute, we used this example:

“Did you remember to get toilet paper at the store?” 

So before you counterattack, respond with righteous indignation, or default to innocent victimhood, try taking a step back to assess.

I feel defensive because I did not remember to get toilet paper. Am I being criticized or am I perceiving this as an attack?
My partner isn’t criticizing me but I perceived an attack because I’m sensitive to the implication that I am lazy/forgetful/careless. Can I overlook that to keep this conversation on track? 

If you can’t overlook it, that’s fine, too. You could say, “I’m feeling defensive. I feel like you’re implying that I’m careless.” Then they can help clarify and together, you can get the dialogue back on track and the toilet paper back in stock.

Be patient with yourself as you practice. You may catch yourself reacting defensively often, but it’s catching yourself doing it that matters. If you note it soon enough, you could even ask your partner for a do-over.

“Did you remember to get toilet paper at the store?”
“Who are you, my mother?! …Actually, can I try again?”
“Sure.”
“I forgot. I can get some tomorrow if we’re not down to our last square.”

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The Relationship Minute is from The Gottman Institute. You can sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning. 

Relationship Minute: Forms of defensiveness

Defensiveness is one of Gottman’s Four Horsemen. So what does a defensive response look like? Usually, it takes one of three forms: counterattack, righteous indignation, or innocent victimhood.

“Did you remember to get toilet paper at the store?” 

Counterattack: An escalation of conflict through scorekeeping.
“No, but you didn’t remember to take the garbage out last night so I guess we’re even.”

Righteous indignation: Impulsive, offended response to a perceived attack.
“I don’t see why I always have to be the one getting toilet paper. You use the bathroom just as much as I do.”

Innocent victimhood:Often disguised as whining, a rush to shame oneself and make the other person feel bad for the perceived attack. 
“I have so much going on right now and going to the store is so stressful, especially the toilet paper aisle! How can you expect me to remember?”

Of course, it’s much more difficult to respond non-defensively to criticism and there’s a difference between reacting defensively to a perceived attack and protecting your own boundaries.

The key to catching your own defensiveness is to pay attention to when you are potentially misinterpreting a statement or question as an attack.

Though the knee-jerk defensive response may be the same, there’s a world of difference between “Did you remember to get toilet paper at the store?” and “You forgot to get toilet paper at the store again, didn’t you? You’re so irresponsible.”

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The Relationship Minute is from The Gottman Institute. You can sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning. 

Relationship Minute: Fire needs friction

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.

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The Relationship Minute is from The Gottman Institute. You can sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning. 

Relationship Minute: Good vs evil

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.

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The Relationship Minute is from The Gottman Institute. You can sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning. 

Relationship Minute: Gridlock

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?

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The Relationship Minute is from The Gottman Institute. You can sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning.