It is interesting to see how many articles and blogs there are out there about ‘how to stop fighting in your relationship’. Contrary to what fairy tales tell us, conflict is a part of any relationship. It is how a couple manages this conflict that can help predict the success of their relationship.
I am often told (in online couple therapy sessions) that there is no conflict in a particular relationship – “we never argue”. And this may be the case, however, having difficult conversations about the relationship over time is important to emotional connection.
Research shows that discussions with your partner will generally end on the same note that they started. So if you start an argument by attacking the other person, it will end with the same tension, if not more. Instead, you could use what the Gottman Institute calls the ‘soft startup’ and approach conflict gently and with kindness.
Here are some steps to follow:
- Put emotions into words.
It is vitally important that you are aware of the internal emotional experiences of your partner, particularly during the conflict. A key skill to use during conflict is to listen for the emotion underlying what your partner is saying. If your partner is struggling to verbalise their emotions, you may want to help by asking something like – “you seem to be frustrated right now, am I hearing you right?”, or “when you say that I am hearing that you are really sad”. Acknowledging emotion is a key skill in turning ineffective arguing into an opportunity for a deeper connection.
- Ask open-ended questions (and then listen).
Open-ended questions encourage exploration of a topic, whereas closed-ended questions usually only lead to part of the information. Also, you run the risk of sounding defensive with close-ended questioning. An example might be John and Patricia arguing about how to parent their 10-year-old son. John could ask “do you want me to just do all the disciplining from now on?” which would lead Patricia to become defensive as she feels unheard “no, no that’s not what I mean”. Alternatively, John could ask something like “in what ways do you think we could be doing this better?”.
- Empathise and validate.
This skill shows that you are truly listening to your partner and their concerns. It does not mean that you have to necessarily agree with them, but it does show you hear them. Empathising and validating someone’s emotional experience allows for the person to feel connected with you, rather than distanced (as is normally the case in conflict).
How partners treat each other when they’re not fighting is actually predictive of their ability to manage conflict and repair.
Speaking with kindness creates confidence, thinking with kindness creates profoundness, giving with kindness creates love. —Lao Tsu