Know Thy Conflict

Have you ever met the “perfect couple?”  You know, the ones that always look happy and appear to be totally in-sync with one another.  You think they can’t possibly fight because they’re perfect together.  Well, guess what?  All couples have conflict.  Successful couples have just learned how to manage their conflicts with more effective strategies.

John Gottman, Ph.D. identified that couples’ disagreements fall into two main categories: those that are resolvable and those that are not.  Specifically, his research found that only 31% of major disagreement were about resolvable issues, which are typically focused on a particular dilemma or situation.  They are also not as intense or painful as unresolvable problems.

The other 69% of major disagreements are about the same things over and over again throughout the duration of the relationship, which is why we call these “perpetual problems.” 

Examples include:

  • Readiness to parent and parenting style 
  • Frequency of sex
  • Spending and saving money
  • Negotiating vacations and time spent with family

Whatever the issue, no headway is ever made on perpetual problems.  Fights can be complex and increasingly frustrating, leaving partners feeling excessively hurt and distrustful of one another.  Eventually, partners who remain gridlocked may “agree to disagree” and sweep their difference under the rug, but in reality they are most likely heading towards a future of loneliness, isolation, and eventual separation.

Perpetual problems occur because no two people are exactly alike and each partner brings his/her own unique personality and set of beliefs into the relationship.  In order for couples to move out of gridlocked fights and into productive conversations, they will need to focus their discussions on their underlying differences, symbolic meaning, and dreams that are fueling the conflict.

If you want to work through conflicts in your relationship, the first step is to identify what type of problem you’re dealing with.  Take some time in the coming weeks to observe the arguments you have with your partner.  See if you can identify which of your conflicts are resolvable and which are based in deeply seated issues.  Be gentle and non-judgmental during your exploration and remember that you are working together to find new solutions.  I’ll look forward to being back in touch with you next month.  Until then, keep loving one another!

The True Joy of the Season

In addition to the many joys of the winter holiday season, the holidays can trigger all kinds of expectations, disappointments, stresses, and pressures for couples.  For example, it’s possible that you are frustrated because your partner refuses to attend your company holiday party.  Or, perhaps you feel lonely because your partner isn’t as energized by the season as you are.  Or, maybe you’ve been hoping for a special gift that doesn’t materialize.

Whatever the scenario, awareness of these emotional triggers is the first step toward reducing the negative energy associated with the situation.  Once you’re aware of the feelings causing the strain, take a few minutes to reflect on your expectations and wishes.  Clarify what is realistic, selfish, and necessary.

Then, share your expectations and wishes with your loved one.  Work collaboratively to develop strategies that can help both of you get some of your needs met (rather than expecting that you should both get all of your needs met).

Undoubtedly, you won’t get everything your way.  But, you stand a far greater chance of getting through the season with less strain and resentments, more joy and happiness, and deeper love, gratitude, and understanding for your partner.

Whatever holidays you are celebrating this December, keep in mind the famous quote by Bil Keane (best known for his newspaper comic, The Family Circus): “Yesterday’s the past, tomorrow’s the future, but today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.”  I wish you all a happy and healthy season.  Until next time, please practice loving one another heartily.

Say Yes to Requests

Last month we talked about the 5:1 ratio of positivity to negativity that is vital to healthy relationships.  I hope you were able to conduct your own personal experiment with this information.  What did you learn about yourself and your interactions?

Today we’re going to talk about the importance of being courteous to our partners.  Have you ever noticed how easy it is to be kind to a stranger?  At times, one might even find oneself going out of one’s way to help a stranger.  But when our partners ask us for something, do we jump at the opportunity to help or do we avoid the request?  We can easily become complacent in our relationships and take our partners for granted if we don’t make the effort to be thoughtful and courteous.

In order to avoid that pitfall, take a moment and remember how devoted you were to one another when you were first dating?  Recall how you would have done just about anything to spend more time with your special someone, to gaze into his/her eyes for as long as possible.  Remember how painful it was to part ways?

Today I want to encourage you to take action when your partner makes a request of you.  Think about how special and cherished your partner might feel if you followed through with the request.  What do you have to lose?  And, what might you gain?

Keep in mind that relationships that operate on the quid pro quo implicit contract (in which positive things need to be exchanged by one another) are unhealthy relationships.  Being courteous to your partner should flow from the wellspring of kindness in your heart and the love you want to cultivate in your relationship.

So next time your partner asks you for something or to do something, pause and consider what saying, “Sure Honey, I’d love to!” would have on your relationship.  Give it a try for a couple of weeks and see how you feel.  Notice how your partner responds to you.

I’ll look forward to reconnecting with you next month when we talk about more tips for making your most special relationships successful.  Until then, please practice loving one another!

The Ratio for Lasting Love

For the past several months we have been talking about some of the pitfalls that can happen in romantic relationships.  Perhaps you’ve been saying to yourself, “Sheesh! It’s enough of the downers, Lauren!  Tell me what makes relationships successful already!”

Fortunately, John Gottman’s research illuminated a few key characteristics and interpersonal interactions that can highly influence the success and stability of relationships.  We’re going to spend the next few months exploring some of them and I’ll be giving you tips to help you keep your most important relationships strong and healthy.

To get started, Dr. Gottman discovered that an important secret to relationship success is the presence of positivity during conflict discussions (and in everyday interactions).  Specifically, the ratio of positivity to negativity in stable relationships is greater than or equal to 5:1.

What exactly does this 5:1 ratio mean and look like?  It means that successful couples do a great deal to avoid having conflict discussions become negative to begin with.  They spend a lot of time and energy injecting humor, good will, empathy, repair attempts, and expressing affection for every negative interaction.

It’s much easier to be forgiving of someones faults or mistakes if you generally like and have positive feelings for him/her.  And having an abundance of positivity builds a strong foundation of friendship, trust, and intimacy that gets couples through difficult times.

To capture the baseline level of positivity in your relationship, try keeping track of the positive things you do for your partner every day for a week.  Pay particular attention to the little things you do or say.  You can also try this exercise with your partner and compare notes at the end of the week.  Evaluate your attempts and their outcomes to see if you’re heading in the right direction or if you need to step up your game.

Stay tuned for next month’s article when I begin highlighting specific types of positive interactions that relationship masters use to maintain positivity, stability, and intimacy.  Until then, enjoy practicing loving the people closest to you! 

Keys to Reengaging with Your Love

Over the past several months we’ve been discussing the red flags that John Gottman identified in his research that indicate distressed relationships.  Today we’ll be ending this series with the fifth and final indicator, which is often the death knell for a relationship: stonewalling.  (And listen up guys, because men tend to use this strategy more often than women when they’re in an unhappy situation.)

Stonewalling is the emotional withdrawal from an interaction or conflict.  It occurs when one partner becomes so physiologically overwhelmed (flooded) by painful emotions that he/she can’t see a way out, and, in response, completely disengages from the interaction by checking out of the conversation.  He/She literally appears to be disinterested in the conversation, tuning out or looking away or down in silence.

Clearly, stonewalling is not a productive way to work through a problem.

In order for stonewallers to reengage, they need to take a break from the distressing situation. They need to give themselves a chance to calm down and regroup.  Taking a break doesn’t mean that the discussion is over; it just means that the current line of communication isn’t working and a new strategy needs to be implemented when the parties are calm.

When overwhelmed, the partner who stonewalls can break this pattern by saying something like, “Honey, I’m feeling emotionally flooded right now and I need to take a break from this conversation.  I promise you that we can continue this discussion when we’ve both calmed down.”  This way the stonewaller acknowledges the situation and reassures his/her partner that he/she will return to the conversation; the subject won’t be permanently avoided.

During the break, the stonewaller should use the time as an opportunity to soothe and calm him/herself, not to continue ruminating on the problem or the partner’s faults and mistakes.  Specifically, the time should be used to:

  • Practice deep breathing
  • Imagine a calm and relaxed scene
  • Practice progressive muscle relaxation
  • Do something for at least 20 minutes to distract yourself from the fight (read, listen to music, go for a walk)

Lastly, remember that your partner is your ally (hopefully).  Work together during periods of non-conflict to agree on a withdrawal signal or cue that you can use during a fight.  Help one another learn to identify the signs that one of you is becoming emotionally flooded and agree to suggest a break rather than escalating a fight.  This will keep you and your partner united and focused on repairing after a fight, and help ensure that your relationship is a safe and emotionally fulfilling place to be.

After all this talk about what makes relationships fail, in the next few months we’ll be turning our attention to the things that make relationships successful.  Stay tuned for next month’s article when we start this series with the magic ratio that makes love last.  Until then, I hope you’ll practice loving the people closest to you and make your relationships great!