Photo by Kate Rolston Photography
Conflict. It’s an inevitable reality in emotionally committed relationships. What else can we expect when we put together two individuals with distinct expectations, sensitivities, personalities, and preferences? I don’t know about you, but when I’m in conflict with my partner – or any other emotionally committed relationship like a very close friendship or family member – I’m not always my best self. When I feel misunderstood, hurt, angry, frustrated or disconnected, it can be difficult to show up in a way that I’m proud of after the conflict has subsided, or to know how to move forward in a connected way when we disagree.
As Luminaries, we value our relationships as one of the most important aspects of our lives. We know that strong relationships have significant positive impacts on our physical and mental health. Our ability to move through arguments and conflicts in ways that make our relationships stronger and more connected is an essential skill to practice if we want to cultivate the types of relationships that thrive and deeply nourish us.
So what gets in the way of connection?
There are common toxic behaviors in relationships that, when regularly present while couples are trying to work through conflict or difficulty, really get in the way of a feeling of connection and the “we’re both on the same team” mentality. A biggie is: DEFENSIVENESS. We’ve all been there. Ever caught yourself thinking or saying things like: “Oh Yeah? Well what about what you did?” or “Well I wouldn’t be doing this if you weren’t doing that!” When we get sidetracked in our arguments with defensiveness, we get stuck in a detrimental game where even when one person “wins,” we both ultimately end up losing.
Strong partnerships focus on the relational environment between the two of them rather than trying to be acknowledged as “right” when in conflict. The goal is to regulate conflict by knowing when to de-escalate rising tension by “putting on the brakes” and monitoring the emotional climate and atmosphere. Successful couples don’t avoid conflict, but they do care about how they work together through their conflict.
Getting back onto the same team
Couples argue. This is a reality. Some couple’s arguments escalate to damaging levels of conflict while others are able to keep it manageable, where no harm is ultimately done. The big question for researchers and mental health professionals is: what’s the difference between these two types of couples? John Gottman, PhD, has identified successful repair attempts as the “happy couple’s secret weapon.”
If you’re not familiar with Dr. Gottman, you might want to look him up and start paying attention to what he says. He is the foremost researcher on relationships, with decades of clinical experience under his belt. He is most renowned for being able to watch an interaction between a husband and wife and, within five minutes, predict with 96% accuracy whether or not that couple will eventually get a divorce. Those are some serious skills!
He’s identified one essential action that will affect whether or not a couple will ultimately be successful: how they make and receive, what he calls, repair attempts.
A repair attempt is a gesture that tries to calm, diffuse, reconnect, or end a fight peacefully. Repair attempts can be any statement or action- light-hearted or otherwise- that prevents negativity from escalating out of control. This helps couples stay in dialogue together and remain connected in the midst of conflict. In relational terms, a repair is less about fixing what is broken and more about getting back on track together. We each have a lot of power in our ability to choose our responses during conflict so it is absolutely critical that we master the art of making and receiving repair attempts.
When low level tension is present in a conflict, here are a few repair attempt strategies to try in the moment to help prevent negative escalation:
- Use humor
- Ask your partner what they need from you right now
- Validate your partner’s emotions
- Apologize in the moment if you feel your partner didn’t receive a comment in the way you intended
- Touch him or her gently
- Verbally remind the both of you that you’re on the same team
- Empathize with him or her. “I get you.”
When high level tension is present in a conflict and real emotional damage has been done, here are a few repair attempt strategies to try to bring you both back onto the same team:
- Take responsibility for your behavior
- Verbally apologize with sincerity
- Give your partner a hand-written, personalized note
- Tell them you love them and didn’t mean to hurt them
- Ask them what they need from you to help salve the wound
- Share your ideas around how you got triggered and how you plan to work on avoiding it happening again
- Tell your partner why they are worth working through this with and what they mean to you
3 Steps to Making your repairs effective
1) Customize Your Repairs
Masters of relationships repair early on in a conflict and often. And they have lots of strategies for how to make a repair. Since every relationship is different, finding the repair strategies that work best for you and your partner is essential for making a repair attempt successful. For example, your partner might really respond well to a gentle touch communicating that you see their difficulty and are there with them. For another person, being touched in conflict would be off putting and lead to more distance. It’s important to study your partner and ask them what repair attempts would likely help to de-escalate conflict for them. It’s equally important to let your partner know which types of repair attempts help YOU to stay connected in difficulty as well. So get busy customizing repair attempts to fit your unique relationship!
2) Receive Repair Attempts
When your partner is making a repair attempt, the most important thing to do is to acknowledge and accept it. When we remember to see the return to cooperation and affection as more important than winning, we’re in a better position to build a stronger and more resilient relationship. Validate your partner’s repair attempt, and view it, not as an interruption in the argument or a dismissal of your emotions, but as an attempt to make things better between the two of you.
3) Cultivate a Strong Friendship
Repairs are only effective if we’re being a good friend in the relationship. Couples that put intentional emphasis on developing a strong bond, and actively treat each other like they would a dear friend, create a solid foundation of trust. When we nurture a collaborative atmosphere in the relationship outside of conflict, it’s easier to see and receive repair attempts made when in the midst of conflict.
It’s important to remember that there will never be a time in your relationship when you won’t have to deliberately and consciously work on how to get through periods of disconnection, tension, or disagreement. The most skilled of us keep our tools sharp through regular practice, and I hope that making repairs becomes an intentional part of your conflict resolution toolbox–both in your romantic relationship and with close friends and family.
A great first step is to take some time to consider: what types of repairs do you appreciate the most? What can the people who love you do to show you that they’re on your team when conflict is present? Use this information not as as weapon between you and your partner, but as an essential way to build a stronger bridge between the two of you.
- The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by Dr. John Gottman
- Gottman Relationship Blog: https://www.gottman.com/blog/
- Gottman, J.M. (1999). Rebound from Marital Conflict and Divorce Prediction. Family Process, 38, 287-292
- Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2002). A two-factor model for predicting when a couple will divorce: Exploratory analyses using 14-year longitudinal data. Family Process, 41 (1), 83-96.