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How Conflict Can Create Connection

Written by: Kellie Gwaltney, M.A.
How Conflict Can Create Connection

Conflict is inevitable in relationships. This has been especially true over the past year as couples have tried to navigate a national pandemic, sheltering at home, working remotely while guiding children through virtual learning, job losses and financial strain, and social distancing from friends, extended family, and opportunities for self-care. With stress and anxiety levels at an all-time high, it is understandable why conflict is happening more frequently and with more intensity, leaving couples discouraged and disconnected from each other. World-renowned relationship expert, Dr. John Gottman, has identified valuable tools to help couples better navigate conflict to create a deeper connection.

Use a Gentle Start-Up
One of the best ways a couple can fight better is to use a “gentle start-up.” According to Gottman’s research, 96% of the time you can predict the outcome of a conversation based on the first 3 minutes of the interaction. Therefore, starting a conversation harshly, through criticism, sarcasm, or having a negative or attacking tone, dooms you to fail. Alternatively, a gentle start-up sets up the conversation to be more productive and connecting. When using a Gentle start-up, it is important to remember these key elements:

  • Use “I” statements instead of “You” statements, and focus on your own perspective, feelings, and needs.
  • Describe what is happening; don’t evaluate or judge your partner or the situation.
  • State what you need in positive terms, which includes letting your partner know what you need them to do, not what you need them to stop doing.
  • Be polite by saying “please” and “thank you.”
  • Give your partner appreciation by telling them something you are thankful for and value in them.

When an issue arises that needs to be addressed with your partner, try using the following format to start off the conversation in a gentle way: “I feel ______ about ______ and I need _______.”

Take a Break when Emotionally Flooded
Gottman defines Emotional Flooding as “a sensation of feeling psychologically and physically overwhelmed during conflict, making it virtually impossible to have a productive, problem-solving discussion.” This flooding is often easier to recognize physiological symptoms such as an increased heart rate (above 100 beats per minute), increased blood pressure, and feeling overheated. When feeling flooded, it is difficult to hear or see your partner’s perspective. It is difficult to compromise. And negativity and harshness are more likely to occur in the conversation. When flooding occurs in either yourself or your partner, it is important to follow these steps:

  • Take a time-out or break for a specific and stated time (ex. 15 minutes).
  • Self-soothe by taking deep, steady, diaphragmatic breaths, tensing then relaxing muscle groups from your feet up to your head, or meditating/focusing on a calming vision or idea while breathing calmly.
  • Return to your partner and try the conversation again.

Accept your Partner’s Influence
Accepting influence in a conflict is finding common ground with your partner. This involves finding parts of your partner’s position that you can understand and agree with. Accepting influence means taking your partner’s opinion into account and being open to using her/his input to decide together on what to do as a couple. Basically, it means that for decisions that impact both of you, both of you get a say. It’s about deciding together, finding compromises both are happy with and respecting your partner.

There is a simple way to fix all influence-related issues in a relationship: shift your perspective on the issue from a zero-sum game of win or lose and “I” versus “him/her” to “us” versus the issue at hand. The ability to do this requires that couples learn that sharing and relinquishing influence is an asset to their relationship. According to Gottman, there is a strong correlation between accepting influence and a couple’s ability to tackle issues successfully.

Make and Accept Repair Attempts
All couples naturally make attempts to repair their interactions when it becomes negative or to try to keep an interaction from becoming negative. One aspect of repair is learning how to “put on the brakes” when you and your partner are in a negative cycle. This is much like first learning to “snowplow” when skiing – so that you can slow down and even stop if/when you need to.

There are many types of Repair Attempts including showing or communicating affection, using humor, using repair questions, softening, taking responsibility, and showing understanding. Some examples of a repair attempt are:

  • “I really blew it.”
  • “You’re starting to convince me.”
  • “I might be wrong here.”
  • “I know it’s not your fault.”
  • “Can we take a break?”

The key is both to make the repair attempts and also to accept these when our partner makes them by softening and returning the repair.

Although conflict is inevitable, the outcome of discouragement and disconnection is not. By practicing these tools, you can learn to manage conflict in a healthy and productive way. And these conflicts can lead you into a deeper connection with your partner.