What Makes for Healthy Conflict Management?

couple ants with antennas connecting (not used as of april 10 2015)

Would you guess that positive interaction during conflict is the key to healthy conflict management?  Twenty years of research by Gottman and Levenson back this up. In a healthy relationship there will be differences of opinion and disagreement in which there will be an overriding positive to negative ratio.  At least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions will be happening for a happy, stable couple.   Basically we are talking about a whole lot of positive happening in the way you handle conflict.

I wanted to share a bit of Dr. John Gottman and Dr. R.W. Levenson research on what is seen in a relationship that is going well in the area of conflict management. After 20 years of research they concluded the following:

  • In relationships that are going well, the conflict management style is matched or congruent. Gottman uses Avoiders, Validators and Volatiles to describe preferred conflict styles. His research did find that these styles could co-exist and be happy IF there was at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interaction during conflict situations. Differing styles will create perpetual issues for a couple.  These need to be addressed through “dialogue opposed to gridlock”.
  • In relationships that are going well, couples will dialogue with one another rather than becoming gridlocked. Some of the ways that couples can promote dialogue opposed to gridlock are as follows:
  1. Use “Soft Start Up” opposed to “Harsh Start Up” in introducing an issue or problem.  As women bring up “issues” 80% of the time in a heterosexual relationship, this soft start-up approach is extremely important for women to understand. Of course soft start-up is crucial for men as well.
  2.  Remember men, you have influence on whether your wife or partner uses a soft or harsh start-up.  This happens by how  positively responsive or rejecting you are in your interactions with your wife or partner, especially directly preceding the conversation before the issue is brought up. As you can see it is all a bit of a relationship interaction loop. We all have are parts.
  3. Accept influence from your partner in a conflict situation opposed to choosing to escalate it by batting back.  This is particularly important for men as research shows that women rates of accepting influence are higher than men.
  4. Make sure your repair attempts are successful.  A lower level of negativity will prevail.
  5. De-escalate negativity early on.  Not many can de-escalate with high level, intense negativity. It was also found that when a conflict discussion started negatively, 96% of couples were not able to turn it around.  Also, men are mainly in the role of de-escalating negative interaction, but they can only do so when it is low-level negativity.
  6. It is ok to express anger IF it is without the escalation of negativity. But  what Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are not ok: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, stonewalling.  Plus, belligerence is the not ok list. So expressing anger would be without any of the above involved.
  7. Infuse lots of positive interaction to create a more stable, happy relationship.  Early in the relationship,  escalation of negativity predicts early break up or divorce. Later in the relationship,  emotional dis-engagement is a predictor of breakup or divorce. Emotional disengagement, in this case, is about when there is conflict with an absence of positive interaction and a lack of negative escalation as well.
  8. Keep positive interactions in place to help with conflict de-escalation.  This is needed for soothing the male and predicting outcomes that are positive for the relationship. Of course females need this as well.
  9. Remember 69% of perpetual problems are not completely resolvable for couples. What matters is the positive interactions you build around these issues. These perpetual problems need continuing dialogue that center around acceptance of each other, affection and humor at times. In addition, you will need active coping strategies to  work with these issues. This is versus “gridlock” with criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. Plus icy withdrawal and painful exchanges. We might ask ourselves which will bring us the most happy, stable relationship.
  • In relationships that are going well, on purpose avoiding becoming negative is a preemptive strategy that is employed by successful couples. This is called “preemptive repair” by researchers, Janice Driver and Amber Tabares.

As you can see, there is a lot of research that focuses on how positive interaction within conflict makes for happy, healthy couples. I hope you find this helpful.

Source:  Bridging the Couple Chasm,: Gottman Couples Therapy: A Research-Based Approach by John Gottman, Ph.D and Julie Schwartz Gottman, Ph.D

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