Navigating conflict in relationships
Relationships are perhaps the most important aspects of human life. We are hardwired for connection, and we often experience long-term isolation as being uncomfortable. Almost all of us want to be in relationship. Unfortunately, those relationships don't always look like the picture above.
For most of us, the seemingly inevitable difficulties and challenges begin soon after the honeymoon stage. Some people get the first glimpse of conflict and run for the hills with the belief that the relationship is doomed. Others get so stuck in the conflict patterns that there's a world of hurt between them and their partners. So how do we move forward with conflict?
Introducing two of the world's prominent marriage researchers, Drs. John and Julie Gottman. Research from the Gottman Institute (Gottman.com) has explored the topic of relationship conflict in detail. They've identified 4 key conflict stylesThese behaviours are dubbed “The 4 Horsemen” and their names are: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling.
This is the first horseman, and can be considered a gateway Horseman to the rest. Criticism is attacking your partner at the core of who they are. You might find yourself saying things like “you always do this to hurt me, you never think about others and are a selfish person”. Note, however, that Criticism is different from offering a complaint or need. Those are far more constructive and do not focus on your partner’s sense of self. They are invitations to help solve the problem, rather than a way to try to make the other person wholly responsible. When the conversation starts with criticism, it often leads to a defensive response.
Defensiveness is a way of reversing the blame, making oneself the victim, or refusing to take accountability. Examples include such familiar dialogues excerpts as, "well at least I don't", or, "yeah but it's because", or
simply over-explaining yourself rather than to just hear and validate what the other person is saying. It often (but not always) follows a critical conversation opening, and it frequently results in heightened tension and one or both of the following horsemen.
The Gottman’s research indicates that Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce, so this one is especially important to deal with for the vitality of the relationship.
Contempt can be defined as a sense of animosity or disrespect that is communicated through sneering, sarcasm, eye rolling, or dismissiveness. It feels awful to the person receiving it, as it is often intended to undermine the other's sense of worth or respect.
Stonewalling is all about shutting down emotionally and going cold, refusing to respond to the partner. Stonewalling is typically a response to the contempt of the other partner (though sometimes it's just a way of not dealing with conflict. Partners who stonewall can make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, pretending to be busy, or doing obsessive or distracting behaviors. At other times, they are legitimately overwhelmed (flooded), but don't come back to the conversation. The distancing behaviour is often a way of communicating hurt and is frequently a way of silently punishing/withholding from the other.
What to do about it?
Do any of these conflict styles seem familiar?
Has your relationship fallen into patterns of criticism and defensiveness where neither partner feels heard/validated? You aren't alone... these patterns are well researched, and there is a way out! It starts with learning why this is happening and adapting new communication strategies.
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