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Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Conflict is inevitable in any relationship, but how couples communicate during a conflict goes a long way toward determining whether the problem will be resolved — or if it will continue to fester and corrode the relationship. In fact, one of the most pressing problems that couples counselors face is helping clients express themselves so that their partners will listen. The search for the keys to effective communication is a pressing concern for counseling and clinical psychologists. 

Lots of ideas have been floated in the self-help literature. One frequent piece of advice is to use "I" words instead "you" words. For example, say, "I feel angry when you leave your dirty underwear on the bathroom floor," instead of saying, "You make me angry when you..." The idea is to avoid playing the blame game. But, of course, the underlying blame is still quite obvious to the accused party. 

Psychologists Nikola Overall and James McNulty have studied the communication strategies that couples use when confronted with a conflict, and they also followed up by looking at whether problems were eventually solved. What they found is that no particular communication style is always effective. Even more surprising, they discovered that communication styles which counselors deem counterproductive can sometimes be quite effective.  

Overall and McNulty maintain that the best approach to use depends on four factors. 

  1. Necessity of change: Problems that threaten the continuation of the relationship, such as infidelity or lack of intimacy, need to be approached quite differently than minor problems like leaving gobs of toothpaste in the bathroom sink. 
  2. Possibility of change: There's no point in confronting your partner about a problem that's out of their control. For example, your husband really can't do anything about his snoring, so don't complain. Instead, find a workaround, such as separate bedrooms.
  3. Agent's motivation: Before you raise an issue with your partner, consider carefully what it is that you're really upset about. You can't solve underlying intimacy issues if you fly off the handle each time your wife squeezes the toothpaste from the middle of the tube instead of the end. 
  4. Partner's vulnerabilities: When both partners have the emotional resolve to work out a problem, a direct discussion of the issues is usually the best approach. However, if you know your partner tends to act defensively when challenged, you'll need to use an indirect approach. Likewise, if your partner is depressed, she may feel incapable of changes that, from your perspective, don't seem difficult. 

In their study of communication styles, Overall and McNulty found that they range along two dimensions: First, communication can be either direct (explicitly stating the problem) or indirect (alluding to the problem through humor, teasing, or sarcasm). Second, communication can involve either cooperation (focusing on the problem) or opposition (focusing on the partner's behavior). Crossing these two dimensions yields four communication styles.  

Direct Cooperation. This approach uses reasoning and negotiation to work through a conflict. Let's say, for example, that you're concerned about family finances and bring this up with your spouse. The two of you agree to discuss the source of the problem and potential solutions, such as leaving credit cards at home instead of in your wallet, or packing lunch instead of eating out. 

Direct cooperation is the best way to solve run-of-the-mill problems, but it doesn't convey sufficient urgency in major problems that potentially threaten the relationship. Further, if your partner is defensive or depressed, your attempt at direct cooperation will likely fail. 

Indirect Cooperation. This approach uses humor and expressions of affection to broach the problem. For instance, if your wife brings her smartphone to bed, you could joke about always having to have a threesome. If she's the defensive type, this approach can convey your message without triggering her defenses, especially if you follow it up with a statement that shows how much you value the relationship, such as, "But I'd rather have you all to myself." 

However, indirect cooperation fails to convey the seriousness of major problems. In fact, it may even signal to your partner that the problem really isn't that important. For example, if you're concerned that your husband's attentions are straying toward another woman, a casual, lighthearted comment might signal to him that you're OK with the situation.  

Indirect Opposition. In this approach, you try to change your partner's behavior by laying on guilt and pleading for sympathy. Overall and McNulty point out that people high in attachment anxiety tend to rely on this communication style, because it assuages their insecurities about the relationship, at least for a while.  

Generally speaking, indirect opposition is corrosive to relationships. Partners resent being guilted into doing something, and even when they do comply, the resentment comes out in other ways, so the problem isn't really solved. And if your partner is high in attachment avoidance, he'll not only reject the guilt, he'll probably also distance himself from you as well. Thus, a minor problem escalates into a major one. 

However, when both partners are anxiously attached, the relationship can thrive on the histrionics of guilt and sympathy, hurt and sadness, undying devotion and unrequited love. These are the couples that love a good fight, because it's so much fun making up and falling in love all over again.  

Direct Opposition. In this approach, you directly confront your partner in a domineering manner with anger in your voice. You blame your partner for the problem and demand change. Direct opposition is the "knock-down, drag-out" fight that's typically the turning point of a romantic comedy or drama. This communication style is quite risky, but Overall and McNulty's research shows that it's the most effective approach when the relationship is on the line. This is because the drama that ensues fully communicates to the partner the magnitude of the problem and the necessity of resolving it.  

In any other situation, though, direct opposition is likely to do more harm than good. If you explode when your wife forgets to put another roll of toilet paper on the holder, or if you go off the rail when your husband tracks mud on the carpet, you're reacting out of proportion to the problem. And that's exactly how your partner will feel, so they'll be even less motivated to resolve the issue. 

If your partner has a strong sense of self-worth, he'll likely just brush off your fit for what it is and try to be more mindful about not offending you next time. But if he's struggling with emotional issues, direct opposition can have a crushing effect. Let's say your husband has been out of work for three months and spends his days lying on the couch in front of the TV. Reading him the riot act won't motivate him; instead, he'll just spiral even deeper into depression

Effective communication in a relationship conflict requires a high degree of self-awareness, as well as an objective understanding of your partner's personality. No particular communication style works in all situations. Rather, we need to tailor our approach to match our needs and our partner's vulnerabilities. If you find that you're just not getting through to your significant other, it's time for you to rethink your communication style.

References

Overall, N. C. & McNulty, J. K. (2017). What type of communication during conflict is beneficial for intimate relationships? Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 1-5.