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Relationships 101: Handling Conflict

Updated: Jul 29, 2023

Relationships can be hard, and that’s ok. We are raised in a society that tells us romance, and the right partner will solve all of our problems, so when we encounter conflict in our relationships, we can feel like we’ve failed. Relationships take a lot of attention, care and emotional flexibility to remain successful and fulfilling. One of the most important aspects of a successful relationship is handling and resolving conflict. For the past three decades, therapists and their research teams, like Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Sue Johnson, have been exploring and trying to answer the question of what exactly makes a happy relationship long term. Handling conflict gently and repairing the relationship after a conflict are key elements to a successful partnership. Dr. Gottman offers these evidence-based skills for communicating with your partner when you’re seeing red:


“Avoid criticism or blame, and instead focus on your own needs. For example, instead of saying, “You never help around the house,” focus on what you do need by stating, “The house needs cleaning, and I would really appreciate some help.” Avoid statements of “You never…” or “You always…” (gottman.com)


Another way of putting this is to use “I” statements. Instead of “you made me feel hurt when…” try “I felt hurt when you…” It’s a simple change, but it can help your partner feel less criticized and more open to hearing about your feelings.


Another strategy that Dr. Gottman’s research found to de-escalate conflict is what he calls a “soft start-up.” This may require some emotional regulation on your part, so take some deep breaths and offer criticism gently before you charge into battle with your partner. Use a gentle voice, try to have a kind expression on your face, and express something positive or appreciative before launching into what’s bothering you. It may not feel like a natural way to respond when you’re upset, but Dr. Gottman’s research found that partnerships, where conflict is handled with care, tend to be happier and much longer lasting.


Dr. Sue Johnson offers a bigger-picture perspective in her advice about handling conflict. Her “Emotions Focused Therapy” theory and practice emphasize how partners stay emotionally connected. She states that in conflict, “both parties are trying to get their needs met,” but they may be going about it in a way that prolongs the conflict. Using this frame, we can understand our deeper emotions in a conflict. When we feel angry, we can ask ourselves what needs we are trying to get met. When we explore that question, we may get to where we recognize that our anger hides vulnerability. Dr. Johnson’s theory is that while on the surface, you may be fighting about money or sex or household duties, underneath that conflict is a deeper pattern of interaction between you and your partner in which you are trying to connect emotionally. On a fundamental level, both you and your partner long to be heard, understood, and respected. By recognizing and staying present with your vulnerable feelings, you and your partner can communicate honestly about what you're asking for instead of getting stuck in accusations and defensiveness.


Dr. Johnson’s approach asks both partners to do some work on their own to try to answer the question of what underlying needs are trying to be met. Sometimes, we may feel insecure around our partner, which causes us to interpret otherwise innocuous behaviors as confirmation that we’re not truly loved. Other people may feel overwhelmed by their partner’s feelings and seek to withdraw from them, not because they’ve stopped caring but because they’re overwhelmed and uncomfortable with feelings. As Dr. Johnson states in her podcast Cracking the Code of Love:


“The question in distressed relationships is always the same all over the world at every age: ‘Where are you? Do you care about me? Do I matter to you? Will you respond to me? Will you be there when I’m vulnerable? Am I safe with you?'”...When the answer is ‘I’m here,’ you can deal with almost anything. You don’t have to solve all your partner’s problems – just be emotionally present with them.”


Remember, too, that conflicts with others are a part of life. The most important part of managing conflict is repairing it afterward. Apologizing in a heartfelt way that takes responsibility for your part in the conflict goes a long way toward healing. Accepting your partner’s apology and recognizing that you are both human and make mistakes reinforces the positive connection created by emotional vulnerability between the two of you. Ultimately, relationships and the conflicts that come with them are another way we can learn about ourselves and become better humans. As Lao Tzu said over a thousand years ago, “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength while loving someone deeply gives you courage."


 


(To read further about Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Sue Johnson: www.gottman.com and www.drsuejohnson.com )


By: Alison Napoleon, MSW Intern

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