Managing conflict through healthy communication
Every relationship has conflict. Its unavoidable but not necessarily unhealthy. Conflict creates awareness of problems and signals a change is required. If both partners are receptive and willing, it encourages them to find a positive way forward, typically through changes that make their relationship healthier and better.
However the process in which conflict is 'managed' is critical and communication is a key component. A relationship where open communication is encouraged, individual's preferences and perspectives are respected and heard, and helpful action is taken is important.
Unfortunately, many of us often respond to conflict ineffectively and as a result conflict is often viewed as unhealthy and damaging to our relationships. Expecting your life to be free of conflict is not only unrealistic but unhelpful. Conflict provides necessary growth and understanding which leads to strengthened relationships through increased trust, intimacy and self-development. No relationship is perfect but some are more aware of these damaging behaviours and make intentional effort to avoid them. Thus, these relationships tend to have long-term success as they can openly share their concerns and problems (without fear of negative consequences), and colletively work towards improvement.
Dr. Gottman's research provides good advice for relationships; he found that not all negative interactions are equally corrosive. In particular, he found certain types of negativity, if allowed to continue, are in fact so fatal that they lead to relationship dissolution. He named these the "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse". At the same time, he also identified alternative positive ways of interacting which he labelled the "Antidote".
To keep this guide short and practical, I will use common scenarios to exemplify how conflict can be managed better in reference to Dr. Gottman's Four Horsemen & The Antidotes.
The Four Horsemen & The Antidote
1. Criticism : Do you often start an argument by focusing on your partner's character or personality flaws? This could be blaming, name-calling or general character assasination. The problem with criticism is it implies your partner is defective; that something is wrong with them. Its important to differentiate between criticism and a complaint or critique, as the former comes across as an attack.
E.g. "Why are you so lazy? I've told you a thousand times to clean up!"
INSTEAD try the following antidote - "Gentle Start up", asking your partner to change in a specific way. A few things to keep in mind include:
Use "I" statements to avoid blame. State how you feel. (e.g. "I feel upset..")
About what: describe the situation not your partner (e.g. "I feel upset as the dishes aren't done.")
Explain what you need: we all assume people know what we expect or what we are thinking, but even the people closest to us can get it wrong so be very clear on what you want (instead of what you don't want). (e.g. " I feel upset as the dishes aren't done. I'd appreciate it if you could please clean the kitchen each night before going to bed."
Be polite; make the request pleasant through the use of 'please' and 'I'd appreciate it if .."
Give Appreciation; try to focus on what your partner has done right or their positive qualities. If they have done what you wanted in the past, mention it and ask if they are willing to do it again (e.g. " I felt so happy when I woke up to a clean kitchen last monday, and I would really appreciate it if you could please clean up the kitchen each night before bed")
2. Defensiveness: can be a common reaction to criticism however it is damaging to the relationship as you are essential saying "its not my fault, its yours." Defensiveness can occur as whining (playing the victim) or counter -attacking (blaming your partner), sometimes it could be both. Though its a natural coping strategy to protect yourself from a perceived attack, it almost always results in an escalation of the problem.
INSTEAD use the antidote - take some responsibility, even for the smallest part of the problem. This can quickly reduce the tension and make your partner feel heard and understood.y
Criticism: "Why are you home so late? You should have called, you're so inconsiderate!"
Defensive Counter-attack: " Why are you yelling? You are overreacting! you were late last week"
Defensive Innocent Victim: " I wasn't late on purpose. You're always finding fault with me. I can't do anything right!"
Antidote: "You're right. I'm sorry I was late tonight, I lost track of time. I'll try my best to come home early or inform you if I''m getting late"
3. Contempt: happens when you focus on your partner's negative qualities and magnify these, whilst ignoring any positive aspects. Contempt could also be expressed through sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery and hostile humour. Since it focuses on expressing your disgust at your partner, it is almost impossible to resolve conflict and inevitably escalates it. Usually contempts arises when a desire, need, want is not met repeatedly over a period of time. It is important to uncover this.
INSTEAD use the following antidote - describes your feelings and needs (refer steps under criticism) as well as appreciation. Focus on their positive qualities and develop gratitude, as both of you start to value and appreciate one another, it leaves less space for contempt and enhances positive feelings.
Expressing Appreciation: “I appreciate your warm welcoming hugs when I come home from work each day.”
Expressing Thanks: “Thank you for all you do for our kids. They are really lucky to have you as their parent.”
Expressing Fondness & Admiration: “I am so proud to have you as my partner. I know work has been really hectic and you've been managing work and the kids really well.”
Contempt: " You're reckless, irresponsible spending has maxed out our credit card limit. You are out of control! All you think about is yourself. I saved money and made so many sacrifices, why can't you do the same??"
Antidote: “I feel frustrated about our finances and the amount we spend versus how much we save each month. I would like to have an agreement about a monthly budget and how much we can save each month.”
4. Stonewalling: This occurs when you withdraw from an interaction though you are physically present, perhaps you stop listening, avoid eye-contact, fold your arms or any other cues that express you are not listening/paying attention. The pattern usually consists of: the more criticism, the more you turn away, the more your partner attacks. Though you're afraid to make things worse and prefer staying silent, you perpetuate a negative spiral and issues remain unresolved.
INSTEAD use this antidote - take a self-soothing break for at least 20 minutes and then re-engage with your partner when you feel calmer and are able to constructively express your views.
Stonewalling: Imagine coming home from work and being met with a barrage of critical statements and demands such as, “You’re late again” and, “You forgot to bring home groceries.” You think to yourself, “This is never going to end. I don’t need this. If I tell her what I think, she’ll really explode. It’s not worth it. If I say anything it will just make it worse. Just keep your mouth shut.”
Antidote: Self-soothe. Recognise when you can't think clearly, are getting stressed and need some time to calm down. Tell your partner you need a break and will be back in 30mins to discuss any of the issues/concerns. Make sure you avoid negative thoughts and do something that gives you stress-relief such as taking a walk, having a warm bathe, playing your favourite music, then return to listen to your partner. Hopefully your partner is careful to discuss the topic in a gentle way and you can engage more constructively.
Information sourced and adapted from Dr. Gottman, visit www.gottman.com for more information
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