Resolution, Not Conflict

The guide to problem-solving.

Beware Of Mistaken Marriage Advice That "All Couples Fight"

Beware of marriage advice that suggests that all couples fight. They don't. Successful couples also don't sweep their differences under the rug. Here's their alternative to both fighting and to pretending that problems don't exist. Read More

THANK YOU

I never understood the insistence that all couples fight.

It is baffling to me.

I have never fought or currently fight with friends, former boyfriends, family members, coworkers or any other person. Fighting is not a part of my life and never has been. Maybe as a kid I got into normal childhood scuffles, but once in high school all that stopped. Spirited discussions yes, taking a stand for myself - yes - but fighting? No way.

So why in the world would I fight with my husband?

Refreshing article.

Some people like to raise their voice

Some people like to raise their voice and make personal accusations. These same folks aren't inclined to have a calm rational discussion about a difference. Calm discussion to them means their feelings aren't being heard and their POV is being ignored. They will never be able to solve problems through polite conversation.

If you have one of these people in your life then understand what you have. These tigers won't change their stripes.

This. My ex was like this.

This. My ex was like this.

What to do with the fighters...

I love this series of comments. The first highlights that some people understand even in childhood that fighting is an ineffective and costly way to interact. These last two comments then raise a hugely important issue, which is that some people never got that idea, and truly believe that the way to get heard is to raise your voice. What are your options with them?

My preference with such folks is to walk out of the room. I wrote an earlier post on using this technique with children who tend to do too much anger; it applies similarly to adults:
http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/resolution-not-conflict/201207/help-....

Also, you might check out this post on Anger is a Stop Sign: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/resolution-not-conflict/201208/anger...

drh

All couples have perpetual problems

Some excellent points are made in this article Susan! We would like to respond to your labeling of Dr. Gottman as "mistaken" by offering an explanation of the Gottman Method and its approach to conflict management. When you heard Dr. Gottman say that "all couples fight," he was referring to the perpetual conflict that exists in all relationships.

In his ongoing 40+ years of research with over 3,000 couples, Dr. Gottman has found that unresolvable "perpetual" problems exist in even the healthiest of relationships due to "lasting personality differences between partners" (Gottman, "The Science of Trust"). The goal is then to manage conflict, not resolve it, by understanding the historical basis of each partner’s deeply held values and supporting the most crucial parts of these “dreams within conflict." While you state that Harriet Lerner's post "sets needlessly low and even harmful aspirations for people who believe it," your claim that all conflict can be solved is both alarming and dangerous, as it sets an equally unrealistic expectation for couples.

Your point that these differences can be talked about in a cooperative manner rather than fighting about them is an excellent one. We agree! The masters of relationships soften the way they bring up an issue; they accept influence from one another; they consistently communicate acceptance of one another; they keep their level of physiological arousal low; they pre-empt negativity in the interaction; they repair the interaction and de-escalate if it does become negative; and they move gently toward compromise. In contrast, partners who are "disasters" in their relationships either escalate their negative expressions during conflict and voice very little that is positive, or they maintain a state of icy, emotional disengagement.

What if Gottman and Heitler were in Relationship?

What if these two were a couple? How would they resolve this conflict? One believes that there is such a thing as perpetual and unresolvable problems that can be managed and help lead the couple to a happy and healthy relationship. The other believes that all problems can be resolved through a win-win strategy that will help lead the couple to a happy and healthy relationship.

I'm curious to find out how each would approach this problem and come out the other side with a collaborative and synergistic approach. Wouldn't that be better than telling your readers that one therapist is "wrong, and sets needlessly low and even harmful aspirations," or retorting with the statement, "your claim ...is both alarming and dangerous."

I don't know if the public conflict between you two started with this article. I do see that you both run businesses who's goal is to help relationships succeed. I realize that you are competitors in the market, but there are healthier ways to compete and still keep to your shared vision.

Please, for the sake of my marriage, and all the marriages you want to reach, find a different way to work through the differences. You both look a little foolish attacking the research and strategies of the other.

-David Goshorn
Success Coach

Irony...xD

Sounds like an argument to me! Haha, I completely agree, they both attack another point of view in the exact same way that one might in a relationship, which kind of negates the good advice in both. I just found it kind of ironic.

In terms of actual conflict resolution, it's all fine and dandy to believe that someone can be clear-headed, rational, helpful, and kind enough 100% of the time to successfully communicate to other people. Maybe there are some out there who can! I'm not one of them though...I lose my temper, sometimes I start out rational and then get all emotional and start bawling, sometimes I'm too preoccupied with other things in my life (work, family, etc.) to properly orientate myself to solve an issue at the moment that it happens. That's just me, and that's why I think "fighting fair" is a term that applies to me. I do consider the other point of view and I TRY to embrace a resolving perspective when I talk about issues, but I'm not perfect and can't simply pretend I'm not angry to avoid an argument, even if it might be a helpful attitude. Similarly, I wouldn't expect the same from my partner.

best argument solution

Get any argument solved on www.razzd.com and find out who's right and who's wrong. It's that simple.

I also love this series of comments...can all conflicts be resolved cooperatively?

Thanks to the Gottman Institute for expressing your alternative viewpoint and also to David Goshorn for suggesting a thought that I'd had as well: let's demo here how this professional "conflict" of differing viewpoints might be resolved. I'll use the format that the book Getting To Yes refers to as "interest-based bargaining" and that in my Power Of Two book and marriage ed program I call "the win-win waltz." Note how much this series of three steps incorporates many of the same skills that the Gottman Institute comment above lists, adding to it the shift from discussing positions to clarifying underlying concerns.

I'll use GI to refer to the Gottman Institute. I do hope to be accurately representing their views, which were written very helpfully in the comments above.

1. Initial differing positions:

GI (Gottman Institute): every couple has some issues of "perpetual conflict"
versus
drH: All conflicts can be resolved if the participants have sufficient skills.

2. Underlying concerns: Note here that all the concerns of both of us go on one list. Any concern of theirs is immediately my concern as well; any concern of mine goes similarly on their concerns list. That implements the Gottman principle of "they accept influence from one another."

drH: I agree that all the principles of collaborative dialogue that you suggest area vital to sustaining cooperative movement toward resolution:

"The masters of relationships soften the way they bring up an issue; they accept influence from one another; they consistently communicate acceptance of one another; they keep their level of physiological arousal low; they pre-empt negativity in the interaction; they repair the interaction and de-escalate if it does become negative."

GI: Good. We're on the same wavelength there. I am concerned though that my research has found that unresolvable "perpetual" problems exist in even the healthiest of relationships.

drH: Yes, I have found similarly that most couples do have at least one and often several issues that they have been unable to address successfully enough to resolve in a way that feels fully win-win. I assume that these tough and persistent issues need skills that go beyond the couple's existing skill sets so they end of in fights or giving up before reaching win-win outcomes. It's like I'm a quite good skier, but on a really steep and bumpy slopes I can't reach the bottom without falls so I no longer even try to ski those hills.

GI: We have found that unresolvable "perpetual" problems exist in even the healthiest of relationships due to "lasting personality differences between partners"

drH: I regard the "personality factors" that sustain the perpetual conflicts as habits that block instead of facilitating a resolution process. That is, habitual responses that are insufficiently collaborative will block resolution of tough issues.

Here's an example.

When my husband and I had young kids, he always wanted to nap after dinner when I wanted him to help me with putting our four kids to bed.

Now, looking back with what I've learned in the 30 years since then, I can see that we were missing two key skills:

a) We didn't switch from insisting each on our preferred solutions, that is, our preferred plans of actions or "positions," to exploring underlying concerns.

and

b) Once we understood each other's concerns, we didn't know to each look at what we ourselves could offer toward solution. Instead I was telling him what I wanted him to do, and he was telling me what I should do to handle bedtimes without his help.

You could call these skill deficits, or be harsh and call us by negative personality labels like stubborn or bossy. Needless to say, I prefer to label them skill deficits :) .

If we had known then what we both understand now, we would have found that his concern is that he just couldn't maintain alertness after dinner. And I couldn't handle getting all four little kids through their bedtime routines of taking baths, putting on pj's, brushing teeth and reading them bedtime stories on my own, especially with the 4 kids spread out over 2 bathrooms and 4 bedrooms.

Looking each at what we each could have offered toward solution, my husband might have offered to put the kids in their pj's and give them their baths while I was cooking dinner. That would have made a major dent in the tasks left for me to do with them while he napped.

I might have suggested that I could have the kids all brush their teeth in one bathroom so I wasn't overwhelmed by running between the boys' and the girls' bathrooms to be sure they brushed adequately. Their teeth always concerned me because tooth decay ran in my family.

I might have suggested too that I'd have all the kids climb into one bed for me to read stories to them initially as a group.

My husband might have added that after his nap he'd be glad to come in to read individual stories for each of the kids in their own beds to finish off bedtimes. He might also want to sit in the hallway and play banjo for them after he'd closed the lights.

I would then have said, "I love it. How about if I bring my guitar and we can sing together while they go to sleep."

3. New win-win solution set

GI: I like your example. It clarifies for me that, as I said in my comment above, I've been thinking in terms of finding "compromises." A compromise in your example would have been that your husband would nap every other evening, or maybe that you'd take turns doing the bedtime. I can see that you are utilizing a different system of conflict resolution, one that hinges on the switch from a tug of war over solution options to exploring underlying concerns. With that alternative system, win-win means finding a solution responsive to all the concerns, not one person "winning" his way with regard to initial solution ideas.

drH: I'm delighted that the difference in these two methods of resolving conflicts has become clear. With positional bargaining some issues are likely to become perpetual conflicts. With interest (concerns)-based problem-solving, conflicts can pretty much always be resolved.

GI: Yes, exactly.

drH: I also totally agree with you that some issues will always resist solution if the process is "positional bargaining,." Like for my husband and I back when our kids were little, conflicts drag on and on if the only options appear to be either one side giving up on what they want, or both sides giving up some to find a "compromise." AFter a comprise, if participants feel 'compromised,' conflicts continue to hover because the solution feel less than fully satisfactory.

GI: So it looks like we have resolved our conflict! We both agree that if couples do not know how to do win-win decision-making, they will continue to have some conflicts that seem perpetually unresolvable. And at the same time, with the addition of win-win skills, pretty much all conflicts can be resolved.

drH, and I in fact agree with the "pretty much." Most folks just don't have the super-high-level skills it would take to tackle their most difficult issues.

The hardest to resolve that I've seen couples face are about geography like when one is dedicated to living in one place, say where they have a good job offer, and the other is wedded to another distant locale, usually because they want to stay close to family.

The other toughest issues I see in my clinical practice are when one spouse is behaving out of bounds (e.g., addictions, affairs or excessive anger) and the spouse is unwilling to do something to change.

Yes, those are good examples of the "unresolvables." Looks again like we have resolved our conflict!

Fantastic dialogue!

This was an excellent representation, Dr. Heitler. Thank you for your response. Your simulated roleplay is well-crafted, insightful, and certainly represents The Gottman Institute accurately. It was never our intention to instigate a conflict, but rather to prove an explanation for our alternative viewpoint - which isn't that different after all! To answer your question about the definition of "personality differences," we are speaking to the differences in personality characteristics that result from culture of origin, parenting style, childhood trauma, etc. Here are some examples of perpetual problems that happy couples in our research were living with:

1. Chris is lax about housework and rarely does his share of the chores until Susan nags him, which makes him angry.
2. Elise wants to spend less time with Joel and more time with her friends. Joel says this makes him feel abandoned. Elise says that she needs time away from him. He seems very needy to her, and she's feeling suffocated by him.
3. Anita thinks Bert is stingy about tipping waiters, cab drivers, and so on. This upsets her because part of her image of a strong, supportive husband is someone who's generous. When she's disappointed with Bert, she gets very contemptuous of him. Meanwhile, Bert believes that Anna is too loose with their money, which makes him nervous. To him, money represents security and a sense of control over his life, so it's hard to give any of it up.

Despite their differences, these couples remained very satisfied with their marriages because they had hit upon a way to deal with their unbudgeable problem so it didn't overwhelm them. These couples intuitively understood that problems are inevitably part of a relationship, much the way chronic physical ailments are inevitable as you get older. We may not love these problems, but we are able to cope with them, to avoid situations that worsen them, and to develop strategies and routines to help us deal with them. The nighttime ritual of putting your children to bed is a perfect example of this. We wouldn't say that all conflicts can be resolved; instead, we say that pretty much all conflicts, even the perpetual ones, can be managed with skills and mutual willingness to do so. We are really talking about the same thing, just using different words :)

Very interesting to me.

Warmest thanks again for participating in this constructive dialogue.

The role of expectations here is intriguing to me. My expectation of myself as a therapist, given my model of conflict resolution, would be that of course these are resolvable issues. They sound typical of the conflicts that virtually all my couples get stuck on, and therefore come to me for help resolving.

My role, as I define the role of therapist in my book From Conflict to Resolution, is to serve as a mediator who guide clients through to resolution of their conflicts and also to serve as their coach so they can learn to do the steps that move people from conflict to resolution on their own.

Here's some possible ways the conflict resolution might go on the three excellent case examples you list above:

1. Chris realizes his concern is that he doesn't remember to do the chores. He means to do them, but never quite gets started. Or maybe he has a starter engine problem (at work does he have trouble getting started doing tasks? Has he smoked a lot of pot, which tends to destroy the starter engine?).

Alternatively, Chris could have a habit-change problem. Have you ever tried changing, for instance, your eating habits? Habit-change is hard.

Or the problem could have roots elsewhere, e.g., that he is re-playing attitudes towards chores that developed in his teenage years vis a vis his mom.

Susan meanwhile might think about where she may have learned "nagging" as a response to someone not doing tasks he's said he'd do.

Depending on which of these potential "underlying concerns" are in fact the sources of his "laxness" and her "nagging," Chris and Susan could then each think about what they could do differently that would be a better solution to their concerns than their current one of his being lax and her nagging.

2. Elise could explore her feelings of being suffocated, looking back to potential family of origin experiences of feeling suffocated that are exacerbating her current reactions. As a kid did she get the urge to go out with friends as a solution?

Similarly Joel could explore his family of origin experiences of feeling abandoned.

Both spouses then could look at new ways of understanding themselves and their spouse's behaviors, and also at new ways of responding to their challenge. Deeper understandings of each other's concerns lead to new ideas of how to respond with more effective solutions.

3. Money habits are particularly resolvable by looking at the origins of his way and of her way. The key is to skip the negative labeling like "stingy." That involves the skill of listening "with the good ear," that is, to understand in the best possible light each other's underlying concerns. Both partners have been trying to do what their culture taught them was a right way to handle money.

Then, with this more full understanding, couples can enjoy creating an "our way," a new culture for their generation that takes the best from both and that both can feel proud of.

Many issues can be understood as "his-way/her-way" issues. That's one of the tasks of the first years of marriage: to clarify where there are his-way/her-way conflicts, and to create together an our-way for each of them.

Whew - hard to follow that up

Thanks so much for both being engaged in such a collaborative way. You sound like a wonderful pre- or early marital couple, without the baggage of hurts and disappointments that lead to so many conflicts.

I feel that you are both saying mostly the same thing in how to deal with conflict. Gottman is by no means a pessimist, but seeks to be a realist. If you read through his books you find many ways to collaboratively work through conflict.

In my work with premarital couples I often quote that 69% of our conflict is perpetual and explain to the couple that they can expect to experience conflict in ways that will surprise them. They are two different people engaging in a mostly 24/7 relationship with each other in a way that we do not with anyone else. One gift of marriage is that it pushes us to learn to truly love, in spite of the inevitable, and sometimes perpetual, conflicts we find ourselves in with each other.

Many couples find a sense of relief when they realize that they do not have to come to a place of all conflict resolved. They offer grace to themselves and the other and slowly move toward the skills Heitler is talking about, trusting in their commitment to love and not only their communication skills.

We all have so much that keeps us from properly using collaborative communication skills, we need the freedom to be able to move toward that at a realistic pace. And recognizing that some conflicts will lead to "fighting" in the meantime can be a good thing.

I come from a family that never fought, of course we didn't deal well with our emotions or communicate collaboratively either. I'm learning to do some of all of these, for the sake of all of my relationships, including my marriage. My tendency would be to avoid all conflict say as not to be 'fighting'. I've realized that some 'fighting' is healthy and necessary as I move toward understanding my emotions and the skills to find some win/wins.

Thank you for all your work to help us all have healthier, more fulfilling and authentic marriages.

the 4 minute mile...

For many years no one believed that any person would ever be able to run a mile in 4 minutes. Then Roger Banister did it. Once he showed that it was possible, many many athletes have aspired to and accomplished that feat.

I am advocating for changing our standard. I am encouraging therapists and marriage educators to tell their couples that, with the necessary win-win skill set, all conflicts ARE resolvable. With this expectation, a desire to find solutions that are responsive to both partners' concerns, plus the skills of switching from fighting over solutions to exploring underlying concerns, pretty much any two people can resolve pretty much any disagreement.

I am also advocating for therapists to learn win-win problem-solving. I give workshops around the country for therapists. It is the rare therapist that has had any training in, or even awareness of, the techniques for win-win conflict resolution that are now a standard part of mediation training. That is why I try to transfer this know-how to the therapy world via my books, journal articles, Angry Couple video, po2.com website, and blogs.

It does trouble me that win-win problem-solving, as far as I know, still is not included in the training for therapists, even for couple therapists or for marriage educators. Yet therapists advertise ourselves as being the go-to folks for helping people to resolve their conflicts. Alas, it's human nature not to know what we don't know.

At the same time I agree with your Marriage Mentor perspective that it is important that we tell couples that, like the 4 minute mile, it takes training plus determination to use their skills for couples to routinely transform all their differences into win-win problem-solving opportunities. In the meanwhile, "managing" the perpetual conflict, a la Gottman, and "giving grace to each other" as you say, sure beat either conflict avoidance or fighting.

I replied to an earlier

I replied to an earlier comment that relates the factor of...well, being human, to conflict resolution. I wanted to add that the back and forth between DrH and GI was very insightful and helps me to understand some of the high-level skills mentioned earlier. I do agree that to look at conflicts in a positive view by saying that they can ALL be solved does instill hope and a positive aspiration, but I think it could also be damaging in that if you have one of the unsolvable issues, or a personality clash (even a temporary one, we all change for better or worse through time), that a couple might think their marriage is doomed to fail and give up, even if they're capable of living a happy marriage via the Gottman Institute's method.

Still, it's a good idea to aspire to resolve all conflicts, as long as the couple understands it's a goal and not a necessity to resolve EVERYTHING, as long as the skills to improve the marriage are being learned and both people feel like their needs are getting met.

I'm so glad...

@Tracy, I'm so glad that you found the dialogue illustrating conflict resolution informative and helpful.

Meanwhile, I was concerned from your earlier comment that anger may be more harmful on those around you than you have realized. Recent research for instance on the effects of shouting at kids on their emotional development confirms that anger probably does have significant negative impacts on family members.

If you decide to take a second look at your assumptions about anger, you might want to check out my blogpost called Anger is a Stop Sign: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/resolution-not-conflict/201208/anger....

For more on resolving conflicts, my blogpost on the Win Win Waltz may be helpful: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/resolution-not-conflict/201110/solve....

Meanwhile thanks so much Tracy for joining in on this discussion. I loved reading your transition from skeptic to "well, maybe....!"
drh

I'm a little late on this!

I'm a little late on this! I'd like to clarify that I'm not an angry person...the goal behind my comment was to show that people are only human, and that in a perfect world it would be great for people to possess the proper skills to communicate rationally and respectfully, but it isn't always the case even with the most calm, rational, and respectful people. Flawed logic is a human quality that must be considered when solving a problem...the goal is to try your best to communicate perfectly, but it can hardly be expected. =3

Gimme a break

Way to slap an oversimplified, general feel-good solution onto a very complex and nuanced challenge -- marital tensions. Oh gosh ... so when I feel angry, I should just stop, step away, and then come back into the room and sit down to a happy, balanced and perfectly rational conversation about our problems? Wow. I had no idea that was the goal! Come on guys -- obviously that is the aim of any well-meaning spouse. Unfortunately, for some of us it is simply not that simple nor easy to do when emotions are heated. I just about lost my lunch when I read the insipid example of the cutesy little couple having a tiff over ice cream. If all my wife and I had to deal with was ice cream disagreements, life would be a lot more cheery. Get real.

Overheated emotions

This comment is quite right that rational discussions that effectively address concerns, uncover misunderstandings, and come up with positive solutions do not occur when people are in a state of "overheated emotions."

Name-calling such as this writer does with terms like "insipid example of the cutesy little couple" is what you get when emotions are overheated. This kind of language is totally incompatible with collaborative, productive dialogue.

Too bad this reader is so over-heated. The name-calling and anger that underlie it suggest someone who is not open to learning new and vastly better ways to address differences.

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Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is the author of many books, including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. She is a graduate of Harvard University and New York University.

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