No matter how happy you are or how long you’ve been together, some conflict in your relationship is inevitable. But many people over my counseling career either didn’t see their parents working through problems or were exposed to verbal or physical abuse and thus learned to fear conflict. Sadly avoiding hard conversations leaves things unresolved and creates disconnection and dissatisfaction in the relationship.
It doesn’t have to be that way. When approached with curiosity and mutual respect, conflict has the potential to bring people closer together.
What gets in the way of healthy communication?
Despite the best of intentions, many couples find a conversation quickly derailing by what Dr. John Gottman calls The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. Your threat response can be easily triggered. The added stress of cramped quarters, juggling work and family responsibilities, along with the lack of control and loss experienced through the pandemic makes your relationships even more vulnerable. When this happens, nothing good can come from continuing a conversation.
How to get the relationship back on track
Dr. John Gottman and his research team analyzed “Master” and “Disaster” couples. What sets these two groups apart is a foundation of fondness and admiration. Also, they can make effective repairs during or after disagreements.
To help with this Drs. John and Julie Gottman created a repair checklist with six major headings and phrases couples can use to either get the conversation back on track or take timeouts to self-soothe and return to the conversation. Learn more about this from the Relationship Coach.
However, knowing what to do and actually doing it are two different things.
A couple needs to recognize signs of flooding and when a repair is necessary before things escalate. For people who experienced trauma, insecure attachment, and a lack of co-regulation, this can be difficult. Trauma, thinking traps, and mistaken beliefs can distort your perception of reality. They make you feel like you are in danger even when you’re not.
The good news is there are two practices I’ve found that support the foundation needed for making repairs. These practices increase one’s ability to both recognize when a repair is needed before too much damage is done and how to successfully re-engage in the conversation with a spirit of curiosity and respect. These two powerful practices are mindfulness and self-compassion.
“Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose to the present non-judgmentally as if your life depended on it because it does.”
Over time, mindfulness helps you turn towards your partner with gratitude and a genuine interest in their inner world. This culture of appreciation, Dr. Gottman found, is the best insurance for your relationship and the antidote to contempt.
Research has also found a consistent practice of mindful meditation, including repeating a single word, helps to calm the sympathetic nervous system and quiet the fight-or-flight response.
In addition to being a welcome refuge from the pressure of daily life, mindful meditation can also help enhance your awareness of cognitive distortions. Mindfulness also makes it easier to recognize triggers and physical cues of distress.
Remember the goal is not to have a blank mind, but to notice when the mind wanders off and gently bring it back to the present. Opening your eyes or letting yourself move while meditating can take away distressing feelings that may arise. Honor what you need. Start with a few minutes and aim to practice daily. If you experienced complex trauma or find sitting in stillness or tuning into your body triggering, it is best to seek a trauma-informed therapist to support you.
Everyone suffers or makes mistakes. You must be gentle with yourself in these moments. Instead of self-criticism that leads to shame and defensiveness, self-compassion makes it easier to acknowledge your part and be open to learning and growing as an individual and a couple.
Research found that people who practice self-compassion are more likely to set and hold boundaries. Boundaries are essential to protect relationships from resentment. Self-compassion practices, created by Dr. Kristin Neff and Dr. Christopher Germer, include the self-soothing touch of hand on heart and hand on belly. They help move you out of the threat-and-defend system into the tend-and-befriend system. This increases your ability to be curious and to reconnect to your partner lovingly and respectfully. The majority of my clients immediately report feeling warmth and a sense of calm or comfort from this gesture. For some, it can be triggering. Seek professional support if you find these exercises emotionally distressing.
Once you feel regulated, you can shift focus off of your partner and get curious about your triggers. Questions like: “What is this about for me?” “When have I felt this way before?” “What am I afraid of?” And Brené Brown’s question: “What is the story I’m telling myself?” These questions help you identify what old wounds or assumptions may be getting triggered by the conversation. Upon return, rather than getting back into the criticism-and-defensiveness cycle, you can use conflict and repairs as an opportunity to heal old wounds, correct mistaken beliefs, and bring more of your authentic self to the relationship.
Relationships are hard at the best of times. Today, we need all the help we can get. Applying these practices and what I learned more than a decade ago in the Gottman Bringing Baby Home Transition to Parenthood training has helped my relationship to thrive and that is my hope for you too.
Learn more about making repairs and other effective conflict management exercises through the Relationship Coach.
Nicole Schiener is a Registered Psychotherapist and Gottman Bringing Baby Home Educator in Ontario Canada. Nicole is passionate about cultivating compassionate conversations and empowering highly sensitive people, parents and professionals to live and love more consciously and joyfully. See more of her work here.