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What Does Healthy Relationship Conflict Look Like?

Updated: Apr 24, 2023

In my work as a counselor with both individuals and couples, I often hear what a person does not like about his or her relationship partner, what is "wrong" with the relationship and what the person wishes his or her partner would change about himself or herself. Indeed, it is incredibly easy to get caught up in the business of blaming when a relationship is on the rocks. But how often does this approach really get us what we want from our partners? How often, when using this blame-approach do we feel validated and understood by the other person? Generally, making blame-oriented statements tend to worsen the problems in our relationships, rather than improve them.

Some couples have told me in therapy that because the conflict has become so negative and volatile, they simply try to avoid difficult discussions with their partners. For obvious reasons, this is likely also not a viable approach--at least, not in the long-term. It does not get our needs met by the other person, often leads to increased tension in the relationship and ultimately can set the stage for a dramatic fight later on.

So how, then, does a person engage in healthy discussion of conflictual topics in a relationship? Especially during times of conflict and tension, couples tend to forget the importance of validating the other person and conveying empathy and understanding--even when they do not agree with one another about a given topic.

As a therapist with training in #gottmanmethod #couplestherapy, I often teach couples how to approach a difficult topic with a strategy called "gentle start-ups." In this approach, we talk about the emotion we are feeling (i.e., sad, irritated, disrespected, disappointed, etc.), describe the situation objectively and then provide a specific description of what we want or need from the other person. The formula is relatively simple but takes practice to perfect. It basically goes something like this:

"I feel disrespected when I'm trying to talk to you, and you keep looking away. It would really help me know that you're really paying attention if you would keep eye contact with me while we're talking."

Consider how many of us perhaps respond when we do not feel heard by the other:

"You never listen to me when I'm talking to you! You don't care about what I need; it's all about what you need."

In comparing the two responses, which sounds less blame-oriented? In the second example--what one should not say--there is also a generalized statement: "you never." Words such as "always" and "never" tend to put the other person almost instantly into self-defense mode. Essentially, our partner immediately stops hearing our concerns and instead becomes concerned with their own emotional survival.

It also helps immensely during conflict to reflect back to the other person what they are saying and how they might be feeling (e.g., "It sounds as though you've felt really overwhelmed with everything you've had to do around the house. I can see how you really might need some help with some of that."). Especially during relationship conflicts, our partners need to see that we genuinely care about them and are trying to understand their perspective (yes--even when we may not necessarily agree with it).

If you'd like to learn more about how I can help you and your partner get your communication back on track, I'd be thrilled to talk with you about how #gottmanmethod #therapy can help. Feel free to visit me online. I am available for #onlinetherapy for residents of Texas, Florida and Connecticut and accept several insurance plans.

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