Conflict is to be expected in every couple’s relationship. Dr John Gottman’s research highlights that in healthy relationships conflict is approached using gentle start-ups. That is, when one half of the couple is upset about something they name it in a soft and gentle way with their partner. They are aware of the language they use and the importance of focusing on their feelings using “I” instead of “you” as much as possible as well as avoiding criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt.
They are mindful of their stress levels and call time-outs when they become very upset and move outside of their “window of tolerance”. Couples who are happy in their relationship make repair attempts to diffuse negativity and prevent an escalation in conflict. They also know the importance of compromise and creating a space where their partner feels respected and safe. It is in this space that differences in opinion can be experienced in a non-threatening and respectful way. Contented couples are aware if they are becoming entrenched in their opposing positions and learn to accept influence from one another. They accept each other.
It is important to point out that acceptance in this regard does not mean agreeing with your partner or “giving in” but rather accepting that your partner’s opinions, experiences, and beliefs have a right to exist. They are not any less or more important and that each partner’s opinions can co-exist.
Dr Gottman’s research contends that 69% of conflict in relationship is perpetual and therefore has no resolution. All couples have perpetual problems, which are rooted in the fundamental long-lasting differences in personality and needs in each person. The focus, therefore, needs to be on creating a dialogue between both partners as opposed to finding a resolution.
Life-experiences can impact people’s understanding of safety, how they deal with uncertainty and their relationship to emotions such as fear and anger. They, therefore, may respond differently than their partner to such feelings. Gottman describes how conflict can ensue when there is a mismatch between how each partner feels about feelings. Referred to as “meta-emotion” the key to successfully navigating their way through this is to understand their partner’s past traumas (big and small) and how they specifically relate to feelings like fear, anger, security, panic and sadness.
Creating a sense of safety so that your partner can talk about their feelings is key to understanding their world and why they behave the way they do. For example, if your partner pulls away from talking about how they feel, understanding their history will open up an empathy and understanding within you that will help bridge the divide. It is this compassion and acceptance that helps build a sense of safety for your partner so that they can take the risk to be vulnerable and talk about their feelings.
Dr Gottman contends that in every complaint there is an underlying need, dream or wish. Feeling comfortable to share each other’s dreams, wishes and needs and to meet them with kindness in yourself and each other will serve to bring down the walls and open up an honest and gentle dialogue between the two people.
How do you know your partner loves you? How do you convey that you love your partner. Dr Gottman refers to the “emotional bank account” when describing how couples can let each other know they are appreciated and loved. The smallest of actions can represent a deposit into this emotional bank and enable the couple to adopt a positive perspective towards each other. Being aware of your partners bids for connection and turning towards them can help to create a supportive buffer for when challenging times present themselves.