By Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC
Whether we argue consistently with our partners, or only lock horns on rare occasions, when we’re in the thick of a conflict it’s natural for us to ask: Why are we fighting?*
While finding the answer might seem important in the moment, given how precious our time and energy is, it’s wise to shift our emphasis from “why” to: How do we fight?
I’ve coached a few couples in which one or both spouses insist they don’t fight. What they don’t realize is that conflict-avoidance is how they fight, despite their insistence otherwise.
Whether or not we’re comfortable with conflict, not only is it a normal part of relationship, it’s a necessary one.
In fact, research-psychologists Lawrence A. Kudek and John Gottman maintain that our satisfaction with our partners is tied to how well we resolve conflicts with them and how effectively we manage the negative fallout of disagreements on our relationships and on us individually.
The problem with arguments, then, isn’t that we have them, it’s that most of us are neither skilled at resolving them nor adept at ensuring that their impact on our relationship and our family is productive instead of destructive.
Importantly, learning how to better navigate conflict is crucial to parenting. Why? Because the stakes aren’t solely about our relationship satisfaction, but also include how capably we model conflict-resolution for our kids and with our kids.
Developing the ability to “fight well” with our spouses enhances how we handle disagreements with our children, now and in the future, and also influences how they manage relationship conflict in their own lives.
I’m a big fan of John Gottman’s work on this topic and appreciate his simple, yet compelling, list of four primary negative attitudes and behaviors—what he dramatically calls: “Horsemen of the Apocalypse”—that erode relationship happiness. This list is pretty much a blueprint for how most of us handle or instigate conflict:
1) Disrespect (a.k.a., Contempt; the most destructive, according to Gottman)
To be clear, we’re talking about actions as much as words, e.g., disrespect can be rolling our eyes or a sarcastic comment; stonewalling can be walking out of a room or announcing we’re done talking.
Whatever our personal predilection, becoming more aware of how we fight is an important step in improving our conflict-styles. In truth, when we’re being disrespectful, pointing fingers, shirking responsibility, or refusing to interact with each other, we get so stuck in our style of conflict that resolution becomes impossible.
When I start to coach a couple, I ask the following question pretty quickly:
What’s your favorite conflict-style?
I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t have an answer. (Although some of us, myself included, find it hard to choose just one!) Once you’ve picked the style you default to most, share it with your spouse; this works best if you share with each other.
By the way, don’t be surprised if you have matching styles. Embarrassed as I am to admit, given that it’s so toxic, I’m quite adept at disrespect and no slouch at criticism. My wife, on the other hand, excels at defensiveness and stonewalling. In other words, if left unattended, our conflict styles feed off each other and accelerate arguments.
That’s why copping to our styles is important, followed by spending a few minutes talking about how we, together, can shift the emphasis from our current preferred conflict-styles to conflict-resolution.
Here’s what some couples, my wife and I included, have tried: Give your Horsemen names (preferably, ones not associated with friends or family) and agree that if either of you notices, say, Defensive Dave or Critical Clarissa make an appearance in your conversation, call them out and ask them to leave.
Whether or not we agree with our partner’s belief that we’re being defensive or critical isn’t important in that moment. What matters most is our willingness to pause, assume that she or he notices something that we might not be aware of, and try to shift how we’re approaching the topic at hand.
A great way to make that shift is to invert Gottman’s list. Doing so gives us four powerful ways to fan the flames of relationship satisfaction via:
If you’re adept at disrespect, ask yourself: How can I discuss this subject respectfully?
If criticism is your forte, consider: How can I appreciate my spouse even if I don’t like something he or she does or says? How can I share what I’m thinking or feeling without pointing fingers?
If you’re prone to defensiveness, think about: What’s my part in this?
And if stonewalling is your thing, consider: How can I stay connected to my spouse, even if I want to shut down or run away?
Asking these questions, like owning our Horsemen, doesn’t magically resolve our conflicts or ensure there’s no negative fallout. Yet the more we’re able to shift how we approach conflict, the more we can infuse disagreements with respect, appreciation, personal responsibility, and engagement. That’s bound to enhance our relationship satisfaction and expand the scope of our parenting skills.
* If you’re keen on delving into the “why” question about conflicts, here are a couple of books that offer interesting theories and techniques: Harville Hendrix, Getting the Love You Want; and Stephen Betchen, Magnetic Partners.
Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC is a Relationship Coach and Founder of Parent Alliance® , a relationship resource for expecting couples and parents. She helps couples coparent successfully and maintain relationship satisfaction. In other words, she helps us stay sane and stay together.