What can you do to get back on track after a disagreement with your partner and avoid breakup or divorce? The number one thing that seems to be breaking up many couples is difficulty bouncing back from relationship conflict or disagreements in a healthy way.
According to Dr. John Gottman, the number one solution to this problem is to get really good at repair skills. He tells Business Insider that you’ve got to get back on track after a fight if you don’t want issues to fester.
One of the main reasons why couples develop serious difficulties is because one or both partners withdraw and go into the “silent treatment” mode due to feelings of hurt, anger, and resentment. In a recent landmark study of 14,000 participants conducted by Schrodt, women are usually (but not always) the ones who demand or pursue and men tend to withdraw or distance.
Then what couples tend to do is blame the other person and a distance-pursuer dance follows – which intensifies the pattern. Couples literally report having the same fights over and over again. After a while, you are no longer addressing the issue at hand and it becomes a vicious cycle of negative feelings that never gets resolved.
A typical example is Sarah and Ken, both in their mid-fifties, raising three kids in a stepfamily and married for 12 years. “I’ve been trying to get Ken to listen to me and improve our physical and emotional connection, but it’s not working…I feel rejected by him emotionally and sexually and I can’t remember when the last time was when we had sex or went on a date.”
Ken responds: “Sarah loves to criticize me and she’s never happy. She keeps pointing out my faults and doesn’t get along with my daughter, Brianna, but doesn’t seem to see the part she plays. Plus she holds a grudge and can stay angry at me for days on end.”
Unfortunately, the common thread among this couple’s comments is focusing on each other’s flaws rather than ways they can repair the relationship. Relationship expert Dr. Harriet Lerner explains that the recipe for failure in a marriage is waiting for the other person to change. Rather than giving up on their relationship, couples need to lean toward each other.
While it’s normal to want to throw in the kitchen sink when you argue, rehashing the same argument and holding onto resentment will damage your relationship. Instead, it’s a good idea for both of you to take responsibility for warming things up and increasing positive comments. This can be done by saying things like “You’re so thoughtful to make a delicious supper, you’re a great cook,” which highlights their positive qualities and things you admire about them.
Additionally, practicing what Dr. John Gottman calls emotional attunement while relaxing together can help you stay connected in spite of your differences. This means “turning toward” one another and showing empathy rather than “turning away.” Dr. Gottman recommends a five-to-one ratio of interactions – meaning for every negative interaction, you need five positive ones.
7 Ways to Overcome Conflict with Your Partner
1. Avoid defensiveness.
It takes two to tango and you’ll be better off when you stop keeping score and focus on repairing disputes. Experiencing relationship conflict is inevitable and couples who strive to avoid it are at risk of developing stagnant relationships. Avoid defensiveness and showing contempt for your partner (rolling your eyes, ridicule, name-calling, sarcasm, etc.).
2. Don’t criticize your partner.
Instead, let your partner know what you need in a positive way. For example, using an “I Message” such as “I’d really like it if you’d plan an activity for us” is more effective than “You never invite me to do anything with you.” Dr. Gottman reminds us that criticism is damaging to a marriage. Talking about specific issues will reap better results than attacking your partner.
3. Avoid character assassinations and attempt to stay in the present.
Stay focused on the issues at hand. Ask yourself: what am I trying to accomplish? Avoid name-calling and don’t attack your partner personally. Remember anger is usually a symptom of underlying hurt, fear, and frustration, so keep things in perspective.
4. Lift up physical affection.
Don’t forget to cuddle on the couch and surprise your partner with a kiss. Even if you’re not a touchy-feely person, increasing physical affection (try doubling the time spent in physical contact) can help you to sustain a deep, meaningful bond.
5. Take responsibility for your hurtful actions or words.
Acknowledge that you messed up by saying something like “I take responsibility for my actions and I’m sorry that they hurt you.” One person’s ability to do this can change the dynamic of the relationship. Doctors Julie and John Gottman write: “one person’s response will literally change the brain waves of the other person.”
6. Don’t wait too long to talk about a disagreement and don’t let wounds fester. Ask yourself: Would I rather be right or be happy? Challenge your beliefs and self-defeating thoughts about holding onto hurt feelings. Having a recovery conversation when you both feel calm will allow you to listen to your partner and tell your side of the story. When you listen to our partner’s side of the argument and attempt to feel empathy, you’ll no longer need to hold onto hurt feelings.
7. Apologize and grant forgiveness.
Saying you’re sorry even if you don’t hurt your partner’s feelings on purpose will help you move on after a dispute. Remind each other “We’re in this together” and grant your partner forgiveness. Accept that people do the best they can and try to be more understanding. This doesn’t mean that you accept your partner’s hurtful actions. You simply come to a more realistic view and give them less power over you. After all, we are all imperfect.
There may be many complicated situations to work out, but focusing on nourishing your relationship and bouncing back from arguments will give you an opportunity to come up with satisfactory solutions. It’s natural that you might feel hurt, frustrated, resentful, or rejected if you perceive that your partner doesn’t understand you. Instead, the next time you have relationship conflict, stop second-guessing their reactions and examine your own responses. Your focus needs to be on working on ways to repair hurt feelings and to get back on track.
Relationship conflict will happen and differences don’t have to lead to a breakup. Dealing effectively with disagreements can make your partnership stronger. The more you know and understand what makes you tick and take ownership of your actions, the better prepared you’ll be to invite a partner into your life to create a successful relationship.
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com where you can order her award winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy Long-Lasting Relationship.