Let’s face it: happy marriages are not devoid of conflict. All couples argue. But here’s the difference between happy couples and unhappy couples: happy couples argue well. They leverage conflict toward deeper connection and intimacy. During 35 years of research on the science of relationships, Dr. John Gottman discovered that about two-thirds of all relationship conflicts could be considered “perpetual” or “unsolvable”. This means that many of the issues you’re facing today are likely the same issues you were dealing with 3 years ago. And you’ll probably be wrestling with them 3 years from now.
When couples understand this reality they can focus on solving their solvable problems and creating dialogue around more pervasive issues. Still, conflict itself is unpleasant and even painful at times. In happy and healthy relationships, partners have effective strategies for mitigating that pain. As it turns out there are (at least) three perfect times to address conflict.
Before It Starts
The most powerful and lasting time to deal with conflict is before it ever occurs. Couples who are committed to a strong marital friendship can reduce the pain of conflict by minimizing its overall power. Dr. Gottman’s research revealed a 5 to 1 ratio between positive and negative interactions. In simplest terms, this means that a negative interaction costs about a nickel. But a positive interaction is only worth a penny.
Successful couples have consistent strategies for pouring positive energy into the relationship. They regularly show fondness and appreciation to their partners. They work to know their partner’s inner world. And they regularly anticipate and meet their partner’s needs. By doing so, they build up the balance in the emotional bank account, while also minimizing the impact of a negative interaction and the resulting pain of conflict. Nobody cares about losing a nickel when they’ve got $200 dollars in the bank!
So the first best time to address conflict is in the everyday moments before conflict ever arises. But what about when it does? The second best time to deal with the pain of conflict is during the argument itself.
During the Conflict
When the inevitable conflict does flare up, it’s important to acknowledge that escalation is your enemy. It bears repeating: Escalation is your enemy. Dr. Gottman notes that the number one thing couples argue about is “nothing”. That’s because once escalation begins, we are no longer addressing the issue on its own merits. More often, we are drifting into habitual and often unconscious patterns of engagement that are designed to protect our egos more than solve our problems.
Successful couples have a proactive awareness of when a conflict drifts into the realm of unproductive. Additionally, they have strategies for halting the conflict, even in the most heated moments. Dr. Gottman suggests coming up with a hand signal that either partner can use to call an immediate time out. (My wife and I are especially fond of this one.) It almost doesn’t matter what the strategy is, as long as you agree to it together. That means it’s not okay for one partner to scream, “I’m done!” and storm out of the room.
Difficult conversations are bound to occur. Beware of escalation. Pay attention first to your own impulse for escalation and, on behalf of the relationship as a whole, be willing to walk away from a conversation gone awry. But when you can’t avoid or arrest a painful conflict, the third best time to mitigate its power is after the fact.
After It Ends
Unresolved conflict often lingers like a stone in your shoe. The pain of being wounded, whether by benign misunderstanding or intentional antagonism, will fester and grow unless and until the wound is effectively treated. Therapists call this “process” and in order to process an argument you must gain some distance from the intensity of the moment. In cases of benign misunderstanding, this could be 20 minutes of distance.
In cases closer to intentional antagonism, you may need professional help. In either case, successful couples are committed to empathy and understanding. The only way to get to empathy is through the path of personal responsibility. No matter what your role in the argument, you must be able to hear and appreciate your partner’s point of view. This takes practice. Dr. Gottman recommends describing the argument as subjectively as possible, almost as if you were watching a play from the balcony of a theater. Each partner will have different perspectives, emotions, biases that will inform their recollection. When partners can appreciate one another’s point of view, they can recognize their own role in the conflict, apologize and forgive, and create constructive plans together.
Processing conflict after the fact can be a delicate process. It is important that you protect yourself from getting back into the argument. If you do, lean on your strategies for interrupting escalation and try again another time. The good news is that when these interactions go well, they put a ton of pennies back into the emotional bank account and help you mitigate the pain of the next issue.
So don’t fret about your conflict. All couples argue. Happy couples have effective strategies. And there’s really no bad time to use them as long as you use them well.