Conflict is inevitable in relationships, so knowing how to effectively manage disagreements with your partner can be essential to maintaining a healthy relationship. Many couples find it difficult to communicate effectively, but there are tools that can aid you in managing conflict more successfully. Dr. John Gottman found in his research that there are four threats to your relationship, if unchanged, that could lead to its end. These threats include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
Criticism involves attacking your partner rather than the issue. Often, criticism occurs when a conversation is started with the word, “you.” This shifts the conversation from problem solving to blaming your partner.
The Solution: Instead try using an “I feel” or “I think” statement followed by what led you to that feeling with a preference or a question on how the issue can be resolved together. For example, “I feel disappointed when you were late to pick me up for our date. In the future, I would prefer that you communicate that you are running late.” If it’s a thought that you have in your mind, an “I think” statement can be used. An example of this is, “Sometimes I think that you do not care about me when you did not clean the dishes as promised. Asking if that is what they meant can clarify any assumptions. You can also follow up with the question, “How can we resolve this issue together”, this question shifts the conversation from criticism to resolution.
Contempt involves treating your partner with disrespect through eye-rolling, sarcasm, or other communication styles that displays that you are “better” than your partner, can lead to further conflict, not resolution.
The Solution: There are two ways to avoid this negative communication style: remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities and build a culture of appreciation in your relationship. In many cases, couples often when upset or angry, think only of the negative qualities while dismissing many of the positive ones. Keep in mind the positive qualities of your partner while addressing the issues. This can enable you to address your concerns without displaying any hurtful behaviors. Sharing what you appreciate about your partner with your partner can help build culture of appreciation. This can also enable your partner to not feel attacked but to consider that you are simply communicating your feelings as you do in the “good times.”
Defensiveness involves shifting blame in an attempt to fight off any perceived attacks. This can occur when you believe you are being unfairly accused. This typically results in presenting a message that “the problem is you, not me.”
The Solution: Instead of blaming your partner in an underhanded way, accept responsibility for your actions even if it is only part of the situation.
Stonewalling involves withdrawing or shutting down. This occurs when you become cold, act busy, turn away, or say things like “forget it”, “never mind”, “I don’t want to talk about it”, or tune out of the conversation. Stonewalling often occurs due to being overwhelmed or flooded. Stonewalling avoids resolving the problem and builds a wall between you and your partner.
The Solution: To avoid stonewalling, take a “time out” to calm down. To take a “time out” ask for a break with an agreed upon time frame where you will come together to revisit the issue. The goal is to attempt to resolve the conflict within the same day as much as possible. During the break, do a relaxing activity, then initiate the conversation at the time you agreed to. If more time is needed, it is still is important to return at the time you communicated then share the need for more time. This helps to build trust as well as let your partner know that you are not avoiding the issue.
Practicing these principles can help you engage in a healthier way to resolve conflict.
Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work (revised ed.). Harmony Books.