The Subtle Song of Conflict

Conflict: every relationship experiences it.  It’s what happens when two people can’t come to an agreement about an issue.  It’s not something that many couples look forward to, but it provides the most potent opportunity to grow our relationships.

Anyone who has read this blog knows that I am a big fan of John Gottman, marriage expert extraordinaire.  In his research, Dr. Gottman developed the capability to predict divorce with a nearly 94% accuracy based on observing the ways that couples communicate; and he then broke it down into several powerful statistics which then paved the way for a full-fledged methodology for approaching couple counseling that focuses on identifying and adjusting the behaviors that are most likely to lead to divorce.

This post is not just a plug for how awesome the Gottman institute is.  They are, of course; but that’s not what I’m here to talk about.  I brought up the statistics and behaviors that are used as cues to predict divorce because I want to talk about the main arena for them to show up: conflict.

The Behaviors

In the research summary linked above it is indicated that the main predictor of satisfaction is the ratio of positive to negative statements.  In a happy, healthy, and ultimately successful relationship this ratio is around 5:1.  While in unhealthy relationships, it hovers around 0.8:1.  So take a look at how you and bae talk to one another.  If you’re really into numbers, keep track of the ratio (it’s okay if you don’t want to…I wouldn’t blame you).  If you can say 5 nice things for every one not-so-nice thing, you’re doing pretty good.

Of course, if it were simply a question of ratios it would be a really easy fix; but humans are not swallows, and relationships are not coconuts.  You can’t just adjust the ratio and expect it to be an easy carry.  Some things are more damaging than others, and there are four coconuts that will throw the ratio off balance to an even more extreme degree.  I’ve mentioned them before, but they are Gottman’s Four Horsemen: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling.

Basically, the Four Horsemen are the four behaviors that are most caustic to a relationship.  Criticism, or using a complaint as a vehicle to attack your partner’s character, is usually the opening salvo.  It is usually followed by defensiveness, which is a response in kind that is meant to protect the ego of the one doing it.  These two dance together until contempt, an attitude of disgust or hatred, comes into the equation and ramps up the intensity until one or both partners becomes overwhelmed and begins to shut down the conversation; which is the final horseman of stonewalling.

Corralling the Horsemen

These behaviors have healthy alternatives.  To avoid criticism, start the conversation softly.  One thing that has been shown consistently is that harsh start ups lead discussion astray.  One of Gottman’s findings during his research was that conversations have a tendency to end on the same note that they start on.  I find it helpful to look at conversation like a piece of music.  The tone is written in the way it starts, and it is very rare for a piece of music to change it’s tone permanently.  Mellow songs tend to stay mellow, and heavy songs tend to stay heavy.  There is an occasional section within a song that changes the tone, but it usually goes back.  The same is true for conversations.  So think about how you want the conversation to go before you have it, and approach it gently.

To avoid defensiveness, focus on the complaint being given, and take ownership.  Defensiveness does not resolve a conflict, it simply tells our partners that we are unwilling to move in their direction.  By taking ownership of our part in the complaint, we open the door to resolution rather than slamming it shut.

To correct contempt, it is vital to focus on what we appreciate about our partners.  This is a more long-term adjustment, rather than an in-the-moment fix, but contempt is more long-term issue.  Focusing on what we love and appreciate about our partners inoculates us from hating them.  So nurture your relationship!

And lastly, stonewalling is a consequence of being overwhelmed.  When our stress levels reach a certain point, we lose the ability to process what is going on, and we focus on self-preservation.  So it is important to keep an eye on ourselves and be willing to set boundaries in conflict so that we can do what we need to do in order to maintain a calm approach.

Being aware of the things that are most likely to cause damage to our relationships, as well as tools for correcting them, is vital to the lives of our relationships.  I stress to my couples that everyone does these things, which is why the ratios of 5:1 and 0.8:1 are so important.  I also want to stress to my readers that knowing what they are is no substitute for therapy.  If you need some guidance, call a counselor today!

What are you’re thoughts about the four horsemen?  Have you noticed that you engage in these conflict patterns?  How about the ratio of positive to negative in your relationships?  Share your thoughts in the comments and please like and share if you enjoyed this post!

(This article contains no affiliate links; it’s not sponsored or anything like that.  I just really appreciate the work of the Gottman Institute, and want to do my part to share it!)

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2 thoughts on “The Subtle Song of Conflict

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