Being the socially connected beings that we are, romantic relationships can be incredibly beautiful and life-giving for us. They can be a hand of comfort, support, and companionship as we journey through life. However, many of us have experienced adversity in relationships as well.
While each relationship is so distinctly nuanced and unique, it is commonly known that the way we communicate within our relationships is an indicator of the longevity and health of that relationship. According to John and Julie Gottman, American psychological researchers and founders of the Gottman Institute, “the success or failure of a marriage depends not on whether there is conflict, but on how conflict is handled when it does occur.” While conflict is healthy, not all ways of dealing with conflict are. Here are some tips I learned from the Gottmans (known as the Gottman Method) for managing relationship conflict in a healthy way.
Relationships Are a Mirror
We often project our deepest insecurities onto the people around us. In fact, the realities that we embody metaphysically are in many ways the ones we have created for ourselves. You can imagine then how relationships have a way of holding up a mirror to our deepest insecurities and flaws. For example, have you ever disliked that person in your office that speaks up on every account? Perhaps you haven’t fine-tuned your ability to communicate your needs yet.
When it comes to your romantic relationship, flipping the coin from “why is this happening to us and our relationship” to “why is this happening for us and our relationship” can really help you ground yourself in your confidence within the relationship and commit to growing with your partner. Commitment to someone other than yourself isn’t just saying you want to stay with your partner for a long period of time. It is saying yes to growing with your partner and being willing to change conditions that are no longer serving you or your partner as you support them to do the same. This type of relationship asks you to lean in.
Intentionally Connecting Helps Build a Strong Foundation
The foundation of a relationship begins with an intimate connection and intentional effort to build something of love, admiration, and shared meaning. According to the Gottman’s Sound Relationship House Theory, the house of a relationship is built upon these six intentional ways of connecting:
- Maintaining awareness of your partner’s world
- Remaining emotionally fond of your partner and leaning into the emotional space with admiration
- Turning towards your partner when they bid your connection
- Maintaining a positive perspective with a strong friendship
- Managing conflict with self-soothing, taking turns listening to one another, and being open to compromise
- Finding ways to support your partner’s dreams
- Building a connected sense of purpose and future
Take Note of the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’
The four horsemen of the apocalypse are the Gottmans’ way of describing four communication styles that, according to their research, can predict the end of a relationship. These four horsemen by themselves aren’t the indicating factor that a relationship is ending. However, they are unhealthy ways of communicating that slowly erode relationships, and impede on a healthy, empathetic, and compassionate way of communicating and building a trusting foundation with your partner.
Criticism is a verbal attack on the character of another person. It isn’t using statements like “I feel hurt when…” but instead is more forward, like “you are selfish.” Criticism is different from a complaint or a critique. You can communicate a critique without attacking someone’s character, but with criticism you cannot.
The antidote to criticism: Begin with a gentle start up, using the aforementioned “I” statement while expressing a positive need.
Contempt is when we treat others with disrespect. This can look like eye-rolling, scoffing, ridiculing, mocking, or name-calling. The intention is to make the other person feel worthless and comes from a place of superiority.
The antidote to contempt: Cultivate an environment of appreciation and gratitude. Remind yourself of your partner’s beautiful qualities and what you love about them, and make sure to verbalize when they do something you love and appreciate.
Defensiveness is the victimization of self to avoid taking responsibility and instead put blame on the other person. It usually begins as a response to criticism and is something we have all done before.
The antidote to defensiveness: Approach your partner in conversation with a willingness to hear what they are communicating, take responsibility for your actions, and apologize for any wrongdoing.
Stonewalling is usually a response to contempt and is when someone withdraws or stops responding to their partner. This is often a result of the other three horsemen of the apocalypse continually happening without reprieve.
The antidote to stonewalling: Be conscious of when you are overwhelmed with emotion, and be willing to ask for a break with the intention to come back to the conversation. We all have gotten overwhelmed during disagreements, and it is healthy to ask for a timeout to self-soothe. But it is crucial that we communicate this to our partners and let them know when we will reconvene.
As you grow in your relationships and commit to healthy and fruitful communication, you can use these tools within your family, your friends, and your workspace. Healthy communication is a step toward broader emotional intelligence, which is sure to serve you wherever you go, in empathy, in connection, in love.