Managing Conflict with Your Partner
Updated: Jun 27
This may come as a surprise to some of you, but I argue with my spouse. I know right?!? There are times we disagree, there have been moments of raised voices and my favorite…the silent treatment! Have you ever made that into a competition to see who would break first? I don’t want to brag or anything but, I may have a few wins under my belt. All joking aside, I have engaged in unhealthy ways of managing conflict that do not lead to successful resolution and make me and my partner feel worse than the actual issue itself.
Conflict is natural and healthy for growth in any relationship and there are some helpful things to know about yourself and your partner that will help you engage with conflicts in a more successful way.
The Gottman Institute has introduced the Four Horseman: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling, which are the unhealthy ways we engage with conflict. Gottman has also created the antidote to each approach as well. I cannot take credit for this information, but I often use it when facilitating a couple session in hopes to educate each party and help them identify new ways of approaching conflict in their relationship.
What follows is a brief explanation of each approach and the correlating antidote. At the end of the blog there is also a list of additional links in case you would like to read more in-depth and do some of your own research.
Criticism: The individual who struggles with this conflict management style will often attack a person’s character or personality. They will often comment on their partner’s flaws and make that the main issue rather than maintaining the focus on the initial complaint.
Antidote: Start with an “I” statement and verbalize what you need in a positive manner.
Example: Instead of “YOU care more about yourself than me. YOU are so self centered,” you could say “I feel excluded, could we make some space to do things that I enjoy too?”
Contempt: The individual who struggles with this conflict management style will often attack their partner’s sense of self with the intent to abuse or insult. This occurs because this person feels superior or above their partner. Eye rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor also play a role in the destructiveness of this style.
Antidote: Remind yourself of your partner’s positive traits and qualities and things that they do well in the relationship.
Example: Instead of “YOU forgot to do the laundry again this week ! YOU are doing a great job becoming just like your mother” You could say “I know you have a lot going on this week, but could you make a note to do a load of laundry this week? I would appreciate that”
Defensiveness: The individual who struggles with this conflict management style will often make themself the victim and flip the attack toward their partner to avoid blame.
Antidote: Learn to accept responsibility for the issue, even if just for part of it.
Example: Instead of “YOU are the reason why I yell, because you never follow through with anything!” You could say “I know I yell when I am angry, I can work on talking more calmly and having a conversation with you rather than at you.”
Stonewalling: The individual who struggles with this conflict management style will often withdraw and remove themselves from the conflict. This could be the tried and true silent treatment, or physically leaving so conversation cannot be had. Conflict raises heart rates and adds pressure and anxiety. Taking a break will lower heart rates and settle the high tensions in a room.
Antidote: Practice psychological self soothing which includes taking a break and finding something to distract you from the issue temporarily.
Example: Instead of “We keep repeating ourselves over and over again and…” You could say “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I need a break. Can we take 15 minutes apart and then we can try and talk again?
There is so much more than can be said and discussed about conflict management, but this is just a little education to “wet your whistle” as my grandma would say. Take some time and ask yourself “How do I approach conflict?” and “What can I start doing differently?”. These questions sound simple, but it takes consistency, humility, vulnerability, and intentionality to make healthy changes in your approach to conflict. The work is hard, but so worth it!
Please schedule a free consultation if you have further questions or want to schedule a couple session to create space for you and your partner to start finding healthier ways to approach your conflict. This takes time and vulnerability, but it is worth it! You and your partner are worth it! Partnerships have many complexities, but that’s what makes them so amazing!
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