If you were to identify the happiest couples that you know, you would be surprised to discover that conflict and disagreements occur, even in the happiest of unions. The truth of the matter is that conflict is part and parcel of the fabric of marriage and relationships. In other words, it is very normal to disagree.
The issue, then, is not that you are experiencing conflict but rather how you manage the conflict in your relationships. Mind you, we talk about ‘managing conflict’ and not ‘resolving conflict’ because – believe it or not – there are certain things that you will never agree on. In fact, the Gottman’s research has put the figures at 31 per cent as conflict that can be resolved versus 69 per cent as conflict that will never be resolved and therefore will require better, healthier management. Here are some thoughts based on the lifelong research of prolific researchers and real life couple, John Gottman and Julie-Schwartz Gottman.
In their research, the Gottmans found that there were four key conflict management styles – commonly referred to as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – that could accurately predict a couple’s potential for divorce or continued couple misery. The good news is that they all have an antidote so should you spot your own unhealthy conflict style, you will also be able to identify its antidote so there is hope. There is always hope.
Horseman 1 -- criticism: Simply put, criticism is about denigrating a person’s personality, character and entire being by using your words, as if there is something wrong with them. No one enjoys it. In fact, most people stay away from people or situations where criticism is an expected part of the communication pattern, which is bad news for you and your relationship because neither of you feels heard and one or both of you are bound to feel defensive.
Antidote, gentle start-up: Be less accusatory and more honest about your feelings using “I” statements, and express what you need e.g. it bothers me that you seem to assume the worst about me. I wish you would give me the benefit of doubt based on our history together” as opposed to “you’re so damn insecure! Why do you always assume the worst about me?” See the difference?
Horseman 2 -- contempt: Kenyans would refer to this as ‘madharau’. Contempt is the most toxic of the 4 horsemen because it assumes a position of superiority of the contemptuous party, and a position of inferiority of the recipient of the contempt. What marriage can thrive when a partner rolls their eyes, constantly sneers in disgust, calls their partner names, mocks them or finds other ways of rubbishing what their partner has to say? Short answer? None. We save contempt for those that we truly despise and neither you nor your partner will appreciate remaining in a relationship with someone who despises you/them.
Antidote, build a culture of appreciation: An effective way to counter the dehumanizing horseman of contempt is to make it a habit to not only notice but also appreciate your partner’s positive attributes and efforts. Yes, maybe at that moment they are annoying you but make a point of acknowledging the parts of them and their actions that don’t annoy you so that you can maintain and cultivate your fondness and admiration for one another.
Horseman 3 -- defensiveness: I don’t know about you but I have yet to meet a person who enjoys discussions with people who are so defensive that anything you say is perceived as a weapon against them. Relationships with such people are the definition of ‘walking on eggshells.’ The truth is, defensiveness forces people to shut down around you and to withhold any information that will lead to the punishments that come along with it e.g. the silent treatment. By refusing to take responsibility for your actions – up to and including an apology – you suffocate your partner and communicate that their thoughts, feelings and opinions are not valid. As you can imagine, this does not make for a strong union.
Antidote, taking responsibility. Understand that because no one is perfect, you have your short comings. Take responsibility for them instead of defending yourself. Allow your partner to express their feelings and allow room for the *fact* that their contributions are just as valid as yours. By listening and making room for your partner and what they have to say, and by taking responsibility for your contribution to the mess, you create room for more of what you want for/from your relationship; love and friendship.
Horseman 4 --Stonewalling. This is when a person stops participating in the conversation, either by physically leaving the room or mentally checking out of the conversation. People (usually men) who stonewall during conflict can be infuriating because their partners (usually women) perceive this ‘checking out’ of the conversation as rejection or proof of disinterest. In reality, they are physiologically overwhelmed. The Gottmans found that the body’s response of a person who was overwhelmed showed physically and physiologically e.g. increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, etc. Their leaving of the conversation is their way of responding to the extreme stress they are feeling.
Antidote. Physiological self-soothing. It is important to recognize that you or your partner are beginning to shut down so that you can both agree to take a break of at least 20 minutes or more. If you are the ‘flooded’ partner, learn to express it and ask for a break and then take some time to take care of yourself and calm yourself down until you’re ready to resume the conversation. This can include taking a walk, filling in a crossword puzzle, doing the dishes or even taking a bath. Whatever it is should be something that acts as a positive distraction to you from the conflict, allowing you to reconnect to yourself before resuming the discussion. If you are the partner of a person who gets ‘flooded’ during conflict, allow them space to self-soothe and then revisit the discussion when you are both calmer.
Four horsemen and antidotes later, I hope that you can see your own, and your partner’s, conflict style and its antidote. It may mean that some healing for past (over)use of one or all of the 4 horsemen but try not to be intimidated. It may not be easy but it is definitely possible; start where you are, do the best you can and strive to be a better person and a better partner. It is my deepest wish that you will reap the benefits of a better conflict management style, and that your relationship will thrive as a result. I wish you a happier, healthier week ahead!
Maggie Gitu is a Marriage, Family and Sex Therapist. She can be reached at [email protected] and via her Facebook page: Maggie Gitu
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Evewoman.co.ke