It can be easy to assume that good relationships are effortless and frictionless, with each party able to completely be themselves, and ask for anything and get it. As Dr Quratulain Zaidi of MindNLife explains, good relationships take constant work – especially when it comes to dealing with conflict.
Once upon a time, many (but not all) of us had a relationship in which someone was perfectly attuned to us and gratified all of our needs. But that ended when we were about two years old! Since then, we’ve all had to put something back into our relationships in order to make them work.
We all can agree that relationship conflicts are not something we want to experience, yet when you spend time with another person it’s inevitable. What determines the success of the relationship is the way people deal with conflict, the nature of their friendship and intimacy, and their shared values and beliefs.
According to a leading expert on marital stability, Dr John Gottman, there are four patterns that can be destructive in relationships and cause fights.
Attacking your partner’s personality or character, usually with the intent of making someone right and someone wrong
Signs to look out for:
- Generalisations: “You always…” “You never…” “You’re the type of person who …” “Why are you so …” Criticism is suggesting that the problem is the other person. There’s no such thing as “constructive criticism” in a relationship. In contrast, if a couple can talk about and examine the complaint they have, they can work on the problem together, even if there is a disagreement.
- With criticism, you are kicking the other person around. They are the problem! And what they did or didn’t do is just more evidence of why they are such a problem. When you attack the person, instead of raising awareness specifically about the behaviour you want to change, that’s criticism. It can be really challenging to break a chronic pattern of criticising, yet once its broken the relationship can improve.
Attacking your partner’s sense of self with the intention to insult or psychologically abuse them
Signs to look out for:
- Insults and name-calling, hostile humour, sarcasm or mockery, body language (rolling eyes), tone of voice.
- There is an underlying mindset, a negative habit of mind, in a contemptuous person. * The contemptuous person often scans the environment, looking for people’s mistakes, instead of what is positive about their partner or what they can enjoy and appreciate about them. To fight contempt, couples have to work harder and create a culture of appreciation.
- Both parties may be feeling very unappreciated in their relationship. To change this around, it’s important to actively change your mindset. Catch your partner doing something right, and tell them you appreciate them for what they are doing.
Seeing self as the victim, warding off a perceived attack
Signs to look out for:
- Making excuses: “It’s not my fault…”, “I didn’t…”
- Cross-complaining: meeting your partner’s complaint or criticism with a complaint of your own, and ignoring what your partner said.
- “Yes-butting”: that is, when you start off agreeing but end up disagreeing.
- Repeating yourself without paying attention to what the other person is saying. Defensiveness gives the message that the person will not be impacted or influenced by what the partner has to say. Partners who feel that they have no impact feel discounted and often become angry in response to defensiveness; they can escalate a fight to get their point across. The ability to accept some responsibility, no matter how small, is a cure for defensiveness. Look for things you agree with in what your partner says, not what you disagree with. When you do this, you communicate: “I hear you. What you say matters.”
Withdrawing from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict
Signs to look out for:
- Stony silence
- Monosyllabic mutterings
- Changing the subject
- Removing yourself physically
- The “silent treatment”
Stonewalling is an attempt to calm yourself (or the situation) down, but it is often ineffective, for two reasons: firstly, the person who is stonewalling is thinking negative thoughts over and over in their mind (“I can’t believe she/he said that! That is so unfair!”); secondly, the person who is experiencing the stonewalling often finds it very upsetting to be ignored – often they will attempt to re-engage their partner by escalating the conflict. In other words, they fight harder or louder. Or both.
The alternative to stonewalling is to learn to calm yourself down actively, and then to re-engage in the conversation.
What is your conflict style? Some helpful tips
- Learn to make specific complaints and requests (“When X happened, I felt Y; I want Z”).
- Conscious communication: Speaking the unarguable truth and listening empathetically.
- Validate your partner: let them know what makes sense to you about what they are saying; let them know you understand what they are feeling, and that you can see it through their eyes.
- Shift to appreciation: aim for five times as much positive feeling and interaction as negative
- Claim responsibility: “What can I learn from this?” and “What can I do about it?”
- Re-write your inner script: replace thoughts of righteous indignation or innocent victimisation with thoughts of appreciation and responsibility that are soothing and validating.
- Practice getting “undefended” (allowing your partner’s utterances to be what they really are: just thoughts and puffs of air) and let go of the stories that you are making up.
- The key throughout the entire process is to be honest, tell your perspective and listen to your partner’s perspective. It’s easy to be grumpy, critical, demanding and selfish. It’s being nice that takes work – and that means on good days and on not-so-good days. This is the secret to getting along with another person day-in-day-out for life.
- In all kinds of relationships, people have conflict and disagreements and hurt one another’s feelings. What determines whether the couple stays together or not is whether they can accommodate and accept the traits and characteristics of their partner that irritate them.
In addition, in my experience what makes a healthy relationship last are the basic tenets of trust, honesty, mutual respect and genuine care for the other person. With this strong foundation, if two people can learn to recognise their patterns of dealing with conflict, then they are on a road to having a long and successful relationship and spending meaningful positive time together.
Of course, all bets are off if you are really being mistreated in a relationship. Then you have to look out for yourself. But short of that, make sure you feel the sweat as you invest and work hard to understand and support the person you love and cultivate a meaningful relationship.
Dr Zaidi is a British-registered clinical psychologist who works in private practice in Central, and as a mental health consultant for a number of international schools.
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