How to Talk About A Problem Keeping Your Loved One Engaged And Without Withdrawing

communicating simba and lion king look of overwhelm

Ever need to have a “conversation” with your loved one, but just don’t know how to do it. You just know they are going to shut down and not really talk with you about re-solving the issue when you bring it up.  You are not alone. I see many clients who choose not tell their spouse or partner how they feel or that they are having a problem with something that is going on within the relationship.

So let’s look at some specifics as to how to talk to your sweetheart when you are upset or have a concern that will help keep them engaged and not withdraw.

How to Talk About A Problem  Keeping Your Loved One Engaged And Without Withdrawing

  1. Share your feelings when they are low-level enough that you can talk without overpowering emotion. The longer you wait to share your feelings of upset, the more intense the discussion will be when you do have it. The more chance you will have of saying something in a way that you do not want to. When your feelings are manageable, so will the following discussion.
  2. On the other hand, let go of very small things that really do not matter that you can be ok with.  Pointing out every small thing that occurs that you may not like or feels a bit irritating can lead your partner to feeling overwhelmed, which leads to them checking out or “feeling flooded” with too much.
  3. One thing at a time helps. Avoid a stream of upset. This helps with your loved one staying in the conversation and not leaving or withdrawing (either physically or emotionally). Not being engaged can be a sign of being flooded or overwhelmed. This is a basic form of protection. When we over share, it normally means we have just let things pile up instead of addressing things as we go. Or it could mean we are clumping our upset with something else into the relationship issue. This could be other stress going on in our life.
  4. Know your partner’s sensitivities or wounds and consider how they filter information. If you know that your husband was highly criticized growing up, then he will be sensitive to comments that have any feel of criticism. So you may choose to keep that in mind when you have an issue to address. It does not mean you do not share, it just means you are aware and use language that they can hear without being triggered.
  5. Use a “Gentle Startup” as the Gottman Institute would suggest.  A harsh start-up or a highly charged, critical approach will not lead to a productive conversation.
  6. Admit your part in the issue at hand. By taking responsibility for what you have done that has not helped with this situation, you create a less accusatory conversation.
  7. Consider when you approach with a problem or concern. Most of us do not do well with facing a problem at the end of the day as we walk in the door. That is normally when we are tired and hungry and want to decompress from the day. This is not always easy as to finding a “good” time. It may be what is the best from what is available. One possibility is to set up a time to discuss an issue.
  8. Keep your voice at a low-level and avoid accusing. Instead voice your need and ask how you might work on this together. This would mean both of you offering up ways you can shift or adapt to makes things better.

I think one of the biggest keys to resolving issues is to keep everyone engaged and not going into “shut down” mode. This comes with engaging some of the suggestions above. I wish you the best as you engage your loved one in positive communication, one of the foundations for a good relationship.



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

What Causes Relationships to Fail – Research Highlights

couple cartoon in conflict (not used as of april 19 2015

What conflict behaviors, patterns, communication indicate which relationships will fail or be unhappy? What do we need to avoid to keep our relationships healthy? The Gottman Institute is a researched based group lead by Dr. John Gottman who is involved in ongoing research on what does and does not make relationships healthy. During my Level 1 training through the Gottman Institute I had the opportunity to obtain updates on the latest research on what leads to relationships that fail and those that thrive. The Gottman Institute has over 30 years of longitudinal research. Drs. John and Julie Gottman are nationally known researchers and trainers and well thought of in the marital therapy community. They are the authors of many books for the general public and for therapists. To find out more about them you can go to their website: .This blog posting is the highlights of the John Gottman’s research on what leads relationships to failing. Specifically the below highlights their research on what is dysfunctional conflict management and how it leads to failed relationships.


Conflict Management Styles that Lead to Failed Relationships

  1. Higher Ratio of Negative to Positive. If the relationship is stable, you will see a positive to negative ratio of 5:1. In the relationship that is failing, you will see a positive to negative ratio of 0.8:1. Positive affect is critical in a conflict discussion or an everyday conversation. It is the balance that is important to look at. It is not that there should be no negativity, as it turns out that some is healthy in a relationship. This would include talking about interactions that are not working, talking about needed behavior changes, etc.
  2. Escalating Negativity: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, Stonewalling. Gottman calls these the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse”. Gender differences here include: female criticism and male stonewalling. Exchange of reciprocal anger is found in both stable, happy marriages and unstable, unhappy marriages. The escalating negativity that leads to “turning away” from bids for emotional connection is the factor that leads to failed relationships. 
  3. Withdrawal and Emotional Disengagement. Here we are talking about the lack of the following: affection, humor, interest, support, engagement and empathy. Gottman calls this negative interaction style as “turning against” bids for emotional connection.
  4. Failed Repair Attempts. This is unsuccessful attempts to repair damage that has occurred in the relationship.
  5. Negative Sentiment Override. In this situation a partner sees a neutral or positive message as negative. This involves negative attributions about the other or the relationship.
  6. Continuing Physiological Arousal. This is involves feelings of being overwhelmed and wanting to flee or be aggressive. Chronic arousal activates a “general alarm response” with physical reactions. In these cases it is harder to take in information and problem solve. It makes it difficult to hear and empathize. An increase in defensiveness may occur.
  7. Males not Accepting Influence from Their Partner. This is shown with emotional disengagement or escalation of contempt, defensiveness when their partner is complaining.

Drs. John and Julie Gottman feel that conflict in relationships is normal. Their research indicates that only 31% is about issues that can be completely resolved. And that 69% is about unresolvable, perpetual issues. It is how we go about handling this conflict that is crucial in a relationship. It is finding a way to accept each other and find ways to make shifts and adaptations with positive affect opposed to a frame of gridlock.

Tune in next week for what helps couples to have a successful relationship through positive conflict management.

Note: The information for this article was taken from Bridging the Couple Chasm- Gottman Couples Therapy: A Research Based Approach. Level One. Written by John Gottman, PhD and Julie Schwartz Gottman, Ph.D