All relationships, even the happiest ones, experience conflict. Psychotherapist and relationship coach Gloria Zhang says the goal should not be to eliminate it entirely (because that’s totally unrealistic!) but instead to work through any disagreements, niggles and stressful times together.
Do you know one of those blissfully happy couples who seem to have it all figured out? You probably roll your eyes at them. That perfect, fawning pair who have been together longer than the Internet has existed. They hold hands everywhere. Their Instagram feed is full of romantic getaways to countries you’ve never heard of. Sometimes you secretly wish they would adopt you.
“How nice,” you might think, “They probably never fight!”
Surprisingly, therapists have discovered that people in happy marriages often never solve a lot of their issues!By default, that means the goal isn’t to eliminate all conflict entirely.
So, how do those ‘perfect’ couples (although you know no one’s relationship is actually perfect right?) deal with their problems? The answer is actually more philosophical than anything.
Happy couples accept that problems are just a fact of life. They focus on handling conflict in a productive way.
The good news is that you can also learn how to fight fair. By conquering your fear of conflict, you’ll have a happier marriage and actually grow stronger after an argument. In my opinion, that sounds way better than the slow, painful death of years of resentment.
But first… we need to talk about how NOT to fight.
There are four conflict habits that hurt and chip away at your relationship if not corrected.
The Gottman Institute (known as the gold standard of relationship research) call these habits the “Four Horsemen” of conflict. Yes…there’s literally research that can potentially predict whether couples will stay together or not, based on how often you do these things!
The first Horseman is constant criticism of your partner’s personality or character. Have you ever said something in the heat of the moment like, “You’re just like your deadbeat father?” Although we rarely mean these things, these words jab at our deepest insecurities and hurt the relationship more than you think.
Responding with contempt is another sure-fire way to dig your own marital grave. When words are used to hurt and attack rather than communicate, you turn the game into “Me versus You”, when it really should be “Us against the World”.
The third Horseman is responding to your partner’s concerns with defensiveness. Ever dealt with somebody who took things way too personally and justified away your opinion? That’s how your partner feels too when you care more about defending yourself than hearing what they have to say.
Finally, the last habit is stonewalling. This is when we intentionally shut out our partners by ignoring, distancing or minimising their concerns to avoid dealing with conflict. My high school English teacher once said, “What you resist, persists”. Sweeping things under the rug is a temporary solution that eventually leads to a blow-up later on, at a more inconvenient time.
So, what do you do instead?
Let’s use an example of a common quarrel I see as a therapist: When one partner isn’t receiving enough undivided attention and affection.
Here’s three steps on how to deal with this problem and still protect your marriage:
Step One: Use a Gentle Start-Up
Sometimes it’s not that your honey doesn’t want to hear you. They can’t have a serious conversation while trying to get through two loads of dishes before the in-laws come over.
Choose a convenient time that works for both of you, where nobody is surprised, and your conversation receives the full attention it deserves.
Start the conversation by reassuring your partner that you love them.
For example: “Honey, we’ve been married three years now. I still love you more and more each day.”
Next, instead of leading with a mean accusation like, “You never pay attention to me anymore!” try an I-statement such as:
“I miss feeling desired by you. Lately, I feel like we don’t spend as much time together as we used to.”
Step two: Seek to Understand
Whether you’re on the receiving end of an argument or delivering it, it’s important to remember that your sweetheart is not the Devil reincarnated. They are simply a human being trying to have their needs heard.
Even if you have a legitimate reason for what happened, if you get defensive you’ll win the battle of defending your ego but lose the war of protecting your marriage.
I guarantee that in most cases, your sweetheart just wants to have their experience validated.
And here’s some hard truth for you:
Being a grown up means that we take responsibility for our actions. Even if we don’t personally relate to our partner’s perspective.
Instead of a cold, dismissive response like, “How do you expect me to be affectionate after slaving away at the office for 12 hours?”
Try this on for size:
“I’ve been busy with the new project this month, so I can see why you feel neglected. You’re still the most important thing to me. Let’s plan a nice dinner for this weekend for just you and me.”
Oh, la la! Even I got goosebumps reading that.
Step Three: Take a Proper Break
Sometimes when an argument escalates, we genuinely have a hard time thinking clearly as our nervous system becomes overwhelmed.
If you tend to clam up during unexpected conflict, it’s helpful to practice communicating your needs to your partner.
Instead of suddenly retreating and leaving your partner feeling rejected and confused, try saying this instead:
“I care about what you have to say, it’s just my brain needs time to process this. Can we take a 30-minute breather so that I can calm down and give you the proper attention you deserve?”
Damn, that was smooth! Who wouldn’t respect that?!
Next, use your break productively and actually do things that help you to relax. Cue bubble baths, cosy socks and breathing exercises! Try breathing in and out slowly 10 times as a quick way to get Zen.
You’ll find that when you come back to your sweetheart feeling your best self, everybody wins. Just make sure you actually talk about the issue at hand.
Practice makes progress (not perfect!)
Sorry Insta-famous couples, we see through your nauseatingly adorable selfies. The next time you start comparing yourself to your picture-perfect neighbours, remember that NO marriage is free of conflict.
It’s not about perfection. It’s about unlearning one small habit at a time and coming back to what’s important: Your relationship.
Want to read more about The Four Horsemen of Conflict & Their Antidotes? Head to gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-the-antidotes/
Gloria is an ink-lovin’ Psychotherapist and Relationship Coach based out of Canada, and host of Top 100 show The Inner Child Podcast. Gloria helps High Achievers break the pattern of toxic relationships and create lasting love by healing the inner child. You can find out more about her at bygloriazhang.com and follower her on Instagram @bygloriazhang.
- Photography: Sonum May Photography