In this final installment of three columns examining Seattle psychologist John Gottmanâ€™s research on successful relationships, the focus is on what he discovered about how successful couples approach conflict resolution.
One of his most startling discoveries was that the majority of conflicts in successful relationshipsâ€”69 percent to be exactâ€”are never resolved at all. Tom is a neat freak, and his husband Bill is a total slob. Tom grew up with alcoholic parents who lived in complete disorder, and for him a neat and orderly home represents safety and stability. Bill, on the other hand, had a military father, who ran his home like a barracks. For him, a little messiness and disarray represent freedom and relaxation. Obviously, Tom and Bill will never see eye to eye on housekeeping. What they can hope to do is, first, to understand how the other manâ€™s position is rooted in deep personal experience, which may help each of them take the otherâ€™s behavior less personally. When theyâ€™ve done that, they can work at reaching workable compromises, and learn to treat the inevitable periodic tensions over this issue with some lightness and humor. Most perennial fights in long-term relationships are like that. They usually reflect deep-seated differences in outlook and personality, and successful couples learn to work with them rather than resolve them.
But what about the conflicts that can be resolved? After observing many successful conflict resolutions, Gottman came up with five guidelines which, he believes, make successful resolution more likely:
1. Soften your startup. Discussions invariably end on the same note they begin. If you start with name-calling, yelling, or accusations, thatâ€™s how the conversation will end. Successful resolution of your conflict is more likely if you speak calmly and with respect. Itâ€™s fine to complain, but donâ€™t blame. Itâ€™s fine to confront, but donâ€™t attack. Focus on the situation that upsets you, not on your partnerâ€™s character. Describe what you donâ€™t like, but donâ€™t evaluate or judge. Make statements that start with â€śIâ€ť instead of â€śYou.â€ť For instance, say â€śIâ€™d like you to listen to me,â€ť not â€śYou never listen to me.â€ť If you can, couch your request within an appreciative statement about what your partner has done right in the past. And donâ€™t store things up. If you wait too long before bringing up an issue, it will just escalate in your mind.
2. Learn to make and receive repair attempts. The first thing youâ€™re taught when youâ€™re learning how to drive is how to stop the car. Stepping on the brake is an important skill in relationships, too. When you get off on the wrong foot, or find yourself in a cycle of recriminations, you can head off a lot of grief if you know how to stop. Gottman calls these breaks repair attempts. A repair attempt is anything which tends to de-escalate the tension. It can consist of suggesting a time-out. It can be a statement like â€śMay I take that back?â€ť or â€śLet me try againâ€ť or â€śIâ€™m sorry I spoke so harshly.â€ť It can be a request, such as â€śPlease be more gentle with meâ€ť or â€śPlease help me calm down.â€ť When your partner offers a repair attempt, your job is simply to recognize and accept it. View it, not as an interruption in the argument, but as an attempt to make things better.
3. Soothe yourself and each other. When couples are in a heated argument, both parties often have trouble recognizing each otherâ€™s repair attempts because their bodies are flooded with intense anger, hurt, or anxiety. When flooding occurs, the best thing you can do is to stop trying to resolve the issue at hand and focus instead on relaxing yourself and soothing each other. Learn what your body needs to de-stressâ€”relaxation tapes, yoga, jogging, meditation, etc. Calm yourself down, then get back together and offer soothing to each other. Loving physical contactâ€”massage, hugs, caressesâ€”are almost always soothing. Most of us know, too, how soothing good sex can be after an argument with our partners.
4. Compromise. If you find yourself sitting with folded arms, shaking your head while your lover tries to talk out a problem, youâ€™re not going to resolve anything. You donâ€™t have to accept everything your other half says, but itâ€™s vital that you be open to your partnerâ€™s influence, and that you be willing to consider another point of view.
5. Be tolerant of each otherâ€™s faults. If you find yourself on a campaign to change your partner, youâ€™re on the wrong track. Your partner is your lover, not your human reclamation project. Conflict resolution isnâ€™t about one person seeing the error of his or her ways. Itâ€™s about finding common ground and ways to accommodate one another. In all our relationships there will be some things we just donâ€™t like about the other person, and usually those things never change. Accepting that reality is indispensable in any mature, successful relationship.
Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. His website is tommoon.net.