How to get the most out of conflict

Conflict is inevitable in relationships. How we deal with this conflict is crucial for the health of the partnership. Must conflicts escalate into a damaging, free-for-all battle? Or is it possible for a couple to use conflict in a new way to improve their relationship?

According to Relationships Australia the top three issues that cause conflict in relationships are lack of time, lack of understanding and lack of communication. This in turn lead to 50% of marriages ending in divorce (ABS 2003).

In my practice, many couples arrive filled with anger, frustration and misunderstanding, yet enough love still survives for them to want to work on the relationship. The dream of the relationship they want to have is still alive somewhere. I work with them to find that dream again.

Pam and Frank came to see me because like many couples their relationship felt like being on a roller coaster. There were times when they were close and intimate, and other times when things escalated out of control into tension and argument. Their first session started amicably enough, but soon spiralled into a hostile shouting match where clearly no-one was heard. They had unconsciously re-enacted for me the very dynamic they wanted to stop.

In my opinion there are no simple techniques that can be used to diffuse volatile issues, because the underlying causes need to be addressed and these are rarely simple. Over time Pam and Frank worked hard on significantly improving their relationship by limiting outbursts of blame and changing the conflict triggers. They did this by softening their communication by being relaxed and using skills of negotiation and compromise, which inturn lead to a balance of power.

The most innovative and helpful research to resolve conflict was done over 20 years by Professor John Gottman at the University of Washington. He studied 2,000 married couples and found the crucial element to having a loving relationship was not avoiding conflict but learning how to reconcile differences.

He found that anger on its own was not a destructive emotion, whereas expressing anger inappropriately through criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling was, and it is these behaviours that ultimately lead to a couple separating.

Gottman’s research showed that having at least five times as many positive as negative moments together was a way to create a harmonious relationship. He also found that gender difference played a significant part, as women usually bring up issues for discussion and present a suggested solution. A husband’s willingness to accept her influence and share power with his spouse was a significant predictor for a successful marriage.

In my practice it is clearly evident that trust, respect and friendship are the building blocks to having good communication.  Shared interests provide an excellent opportunity to bond and relax, affording the couple quality time together.  The bedroom is no longer the only place for affection, physical closeness and intimacy, suddenly everyday can provide the opportunity to share caring and loving compliments.

When couples are in conflict they often appear to be on the opposite side as reflected in the language they use, “but, you don’t do…”, closing down the communication. When both parties feel that they are on the same team their communication changes with “yes and we do have these issues and how can we work together to create a new way of looking at our problem”.

Going over old ground again and again, which cannot be changed will escalate frustration. The focus in conflict resolution is looking forward, seeing how things can be different in the present and taking that belief into the future.

Tips from Why Marriages Succeed Or Fail and how you can make yours last by John Gottman published by Bloomsbury:

• Limit discussions of disagreements to fifteen minutes at a time.
• Don’t rehearse a script of hurtful comments beforehand.
• The more concrete your grievances, the more you will improve your partner’s understanding of why you are upset. Think of your complaint as a set of clear directions.
• Be calm, you will not absorb what your partner is saying otherwise. Learn how to calm yourself down. This is especially important for men, who are more likely to feel physiologically overwhelmed sooner than woman.
• Take some deep breaths saying to yourself “No need to take this personally”, “This is a bad moment, but things aren’t always like this”, “I am upset now, but I love him/her”.
• Take time out during a heated conversation to close your eyes breath deeply and imagine you are somewhere relaxing or doing something you enjoy.
• To be receptive to new ideas, be aware of your body language and facial expressions, learn non-defensive listening by empathising with your partner’s emotions and viewpoint. Don’t try to analyse your partner’s personality or mind read.
• Short-circuit critical and defensive communication by having a positive mindset and by introducing praise and admiration.
• By saying what you admire about your mate, will allow them to feel more accepted.