It is imperative that both partners accept the “influence” of others. Typically, there is a top and a bottom within relationships where the top has ultimate veto power. Relationships are most effective when each party has equal veto power with most issues. Dr. Gottman found that in the happiest of marriages, men accepted the “influence” of their partners. Examples of “influence” include: a belief that you can learn from your partner, not rejecting their opinions, and believing that they can also come up with good solutions.
Partners that make effective repairs have functional and successful relationships. This means that functional parties resolve problems or arguments during the argument. When couples resolve each argument, problems are resolved at that time and do not become additive and resurface during a future argument. Further, having a partner who has the ability to say they are sorry is crucial. Being able to say you are wrong takes courage, trust, and is helpful in reducing conflict and having a loving relationship.
Creating an atmosphere where one can break the negativity is helpful as well. One can use humor or offer their partner a cup of coffee or tea after the argument, ask their partner for a hug, or make light of the argument without invalidating the other. Make-up intimacy helps make peace and reconnects the partners too. Moreover, having a sense that your partner will accept your efforts to improve the situation and vice versa is paramount.
Making compromises is key in building trust, commitment, and ensuring safety within a relationship. Having a sense that your partner will give way on things if there is a disagreement ensures safety. “Black and white thinking” – such as “I’m right so you must be wrong” – is dangerous. Couples must be able to give and take in an argument and share power to find a resolution.
Keeping the End in Mind
Also, couples need to fight with the end in mind. So what should the end in mind consist of? The end in mind should focus on resolving the issue while simultaneously ensuring your partner feels good during and after the conflict. Both partners must control their stubbornness. Couples should practice calming techniques as in paying attention to their heart rates. When we have a heart rate above 90 to 95 beats per minute, we are emotionally flooded, have difficulty being rational in arguments, and are in a state of fight, flight, or freeze. When we are flooded, we should pause or take a time-out for 20 to 30 minutes from an argument and then resume discussion in order to resolve the conflict.
Just as we should not spank our children when we are angry or emotional, we should not argue or discuss important matters with our partner when we are angry. This will inevitably lead to someone saying or doing something that they will regret. Most importantly, if you need a break from an argument, take a break, but resolve the issue immediately following your break. Watch for signs of flooding – like feeling overwhelmed, not being able to stay calm during arguments, wanting distance, and small issues becoming big ones. If you are flooded, take a break.
Safe Talking Techniques
Finally, I have illustrated Safe Talking Techniques that have been adapted from Markman and Stanley in “Fighting for your Marriage.” These techniques enable each partner to speak without interruption.
1. Use of a jointly valued item such as a talking tool (for example, a wedding ring or a photo of the family or the couple).
2. Each person takes turns to hold the item and the person who holds it also holds the floor.
3. The person listening then repeats back what they have heard and checks that it is correct.
4. The other person then takes hold of the talking item and speaks while their partner summaries.
A Five Step Tool
Dr. Gottman has developed a five step tool for discussing an issue or major problem which needs to be resolved. Remember, the goal is to gain a greater understanding of where your partner is coming from rather than to win the argument. When I work with couples, I want them both to feel like they have been heard, understood, and are accepted in their position. Often achieving the above deescalates the situation and the couple finds resolution. Couples that get along and don’t have conflict easily agree to disagree whereas couples who have high conflict are threatened by disagreement.
In using the five steps below, couples should work through each step together.
Feelings: Share how you feel about the situation. Do not say why you feel that way. Avoid commenting on your partner’s feelings and stay in your lane.
Realities: Take turns describing your “reality.” Summarize and validate at least a part of your partner’s reality. Remember, their reality should not be a threat to you. During conflict we have selective attention and therefore partners remember the same situation differently.
Triggers: Share what experiences or memories you have had that might have escalated the interaction. Elaborate on the stories of why these are triggers for each of you. Own your own trigger. Don’t blame, criticize, or minimize your partner’s triggers.
Responsibility: Acknowledge your own role in contributing to the fight or incident. Try avoiding defensiveness. When we take a little responsibility, the situation deescalates for our partner.
Constructive Plans: Plan together one way that each of you can make it better next time. Now that you both have a better appreciation of where your partner is coming from, you have been heard, and you each have taken some of the responsibility for the regrettable incident, you are better able to find a resolution with your partner.