How Happy Couples Manage Conflict and Communicate Effectively
As a couples therapist, I’m often asked how happy couples make it work. The answer is consistent: when they disagree, they know they can talk about it. In this article, we’ll explore some effective strategies happy couples use to manage conflict and communicate effectively.
The trait most responsible for happy, lifelong relationships is the ability to communicate that you are listening and that you understand what your partner is trying to say, even if you disagree with it.
Research by the Drs. Gottman and Levenson at the University of Washington (Gottman and Levenson, 1999) shows that nearly 70% of conflict in a happy, healthy relationship is perpetual, meaning it doesn’t get resolved in the traditional sense of the word. However, conflict itself is not correlated with relationship failure. What makes healthy relationships successful is that happy couples are able to have a discussion about the conflict rather than getting stuck in gridlock. So, learning to manage conflict through a healthy discussion is important. If you’re looking to learn more about this, check out Gottman Method Couples Counseling.
Seek to Understand Before Seeking to Be Understood
When it comes to communication, a good rule of thumb is a Stephen Covey phrase: “Seek to understand before seeking to be understood.” This means that when you want to be heard and understood, it helps to hear and understand the other person first. This approach helps them focus on your message rather than trying to be heard. Remember, understanding your partner’s perspective does NOT mean that you agree with it or support it; you’ll have more luck having your disagreement heard if you show that you hear them.
Know When to Take a Break
Sometimes, in the process of seeking to understand, people get heated because they hear things differently or forget to hear the other person first. Knowing when to take a break is essential. Taking a break needs to be done in an effective way to get the full benefit. Saying something like, “Woah, this is getting tense. Let’s take a 30-minute break and then try again” is helpful. The key point is to not engage in criticism or blame AND to specify a time limit. The time limit prevents one person from hanging in limbo wondering when they will be heard. During the break, each person should practice self-soothing techniques like breathing, meditation, yoga, hobbies, etc. and when possible, be in different rooms/areas. Depending on the intensity of the conflict, the break should be at least 20 minutes, but no more than 24 hours.
Repair Hurt Feelings
Because so much conflict isn’t technically resolved, there are times when people’s feelings get hurt. A healthy, happy relationship can withstand this so long as the offending party (which is often both) makes a “repair attempt” where the hurt feelings are acknowledged and some kind of repair is offered (an apology is only one example of a repair effort).
By using these strategies, happy couples can manage conflict and communicate effectively without getting drawn into the negative emotions that can damage their relationship.
*Gottman, J.M., and Levenson, R.W. “What predicts change in marital interactions over time? A study of alternative models.” Family Process Journal. 38.2 (1999): 143-58. Print
To learn more about red flags to look out for and how to fix them, please visit my Couples Counseling page.
Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s has worked in the helping profession since he started college in 1990. After completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin in 1994, he attended the highly-regarded University of Minnesota to earn his Master’s degree in 1997. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is recognized as a Board Approved Supervisor by the State of Texas Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors. Jonathan has completed Level-2 of the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling, and in 1998 received training from the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Advanced Critical Incident Stress Management & Debriefing. To learn more about Jonathan’s practice, click here: Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s.