How to manage conflict without reciprocating,
retaliating, or invalidating
By Hara Estroff Marano published March 1, 1997 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
You and your mate have just had a fight. One of the countless minute, convoluted conversations that busy couples have every day in their push to get things done, each one part spoken word, part signal code, part mind reading, but one that suddenly flares into your own private Bosnia. A simple conversation that started out so expectantly a second before goes off like a grenade in your hands.
Couples' arguments can be so deeply mired in the minutiae of their lives that at times mates may feel like they're locked in their own special hell. But what if most times, without paying any attention, you and your spouse were sliding into a deeply carved groove, having the same argument you've had countless times before? The triggers may be different: socks on the floor, a rude remark to a father-in-law, an oversize phone bill, an unchanged diaper, a puddle of orange juice on the counter, a shrug. When the atmosphere is right, no act is too small to incite hostility.
In couples' myriad fights, despite our glorious individuality, we are all fighting exactly the same fight. Tolstoy, you see, got it wrong. Each couple may be unhappy in its own way, tripping over the particular furnishings of its own house, but every couple gets unhappy in the exact same way and for the same reasons. We use the same words. We harden into the same positions. We feel the same alienation. And the same distress. The same processes overtake love in ways that marriage researchers now find extraordinarily predictable.
Yet, it is this very fact—the ritualization of revenge—that now promises to save love. Over the past 20 years, experts have been putting our intimate relationships under the microscope, studying our private reactions by both looking at what goes on between partners and inside them: videotaping every grimace, shrug, and caress, audiotaping every expletive and sigh, and monitoring physiological reactions throughout. They've come to understand why some relationships happily endure, what can make some hellholes of unhappiness, and what, precisely, precipitates divorce, which still claims half of all first marriages, usually within the first seven years.
Psychologists have seen with their own eyes that the overwhelming majority of couples start out with true love and great expectations. But mounting evidence suggests we get into trouble for a very humbling reason. We just don't know how to handle the negative feelings that are the unavoidable by-product of the differences between two people, the very differences that attract them to each other in the first place. Think of it as the friction any two bodies would generate rubbing against each other countless times each day.
Love Survival Skills
As a result, a growing number of researchers and clinicians have come to the conclusion that most unhappy couples don't so much need therapy as they do education. Education in how relationships work, and the specific skills that make them work well. "Having a good relationship is a skill," insists Howard Markman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Denver, and a longtime marital researcher. Washington, D.C., family therapist Diane Sollee, M.S.W., agrees. "Marriage isn't a disease," she says, "you don't need therapy for it." Sollee is director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education, an organization that makes people aware of the new information that can change the odds for marital success. "Couples need to learn a way to stay engaged—not withdraw or attack," adds psychologist Sherod Miller, Ph.D., another pioneer in couples education who practices in Colorado.
This thinking embodies a sea change in the mental health world. For one, it formalizes the idea that the best way to help people is to teach them crucial psychological skills, so-called "psychoeducation." "Psychoeducation is nothing more than giving knowledge to people so they can help themselves," says Sollee. In other words, courses aren't therapy—but they typically have a therapeutic effect. Psychoeducation also flatly rejects the medical model of illness—which sees problems as pathology—because it doesn't fit what are really normal problems of living, however much mental distress they may cause. In addition, it shifts value to prevention so the development of problems that are costly to men, women, and children can be averted.
"We haven't had the revolution we need about love," Sollee insists. "Couples who marry now don't do anything different despite knowing that 50 percent of them will be divorced in a few years. They think their love is so special they'll make it. They don't realize that the survival of marriage is not about love, it's about skills. It's a skill to know how not to escalate a conflict if your relationship isn't working. It's not that you picked the wrong person. You need smart love."
For all the scientifically documentable benefits of preventing marital distress before it starts, Sollee is convinced that marital education is the most romantic thing a couple can do, to stroll hand in hand into a course that will teach them how to keep their love alive. Or the best wedding present parents can give their children. Sollee has put her money where her mouth is; she has herself attended courses and given them as wedding presents to her two sons and their wives.
What couples today need to make a go of relationships is not something they could have readily picked up in their families of origin. "No one has the skills because the world is changing too fast," says Miller. Until recently, when men and women entered relationships, they stepped into rigid roles precast by the culture. "We didn't see our parents make decisions in an open, constructive way," he says. "In my lifetime, couples have gone from role-taking, defined along gender lines, to role-making."
Not only are roles fluid—established by individual couples—but everything is negotiable. "The world is more mobile," says Miller, whose program, Couple Communication, was one of the first. "Information of all sorts impacts families so that they have more choices. In a world that's less routine, to find a context to live in, couples must shift from a reliance on the external—extended family, church—to an internal support system, where they can talk about issues and work out solutions."
Miller began seeing couples conjointly in 1964, well before there was such a thing as family therapy. Quickly he discovered they were relying on the therapist to be the problem-solver. "I saw myself actually creating a dependency," he says. "I wanted to teach couples how to be their own best problem-solvers."
For Miller, effective conflict resolution starts with the self—self-awareness, self-caring, self-honesty, knowing what one wants and valuing it enough to speak up for it clearly. "Lots of pathology grows out of not knowing yourself," he says. "Caring is listening to yourself, and owning what you've done and haven't done." Then listen to your partner do the same.
The signature component of Miller's approach is "The Awareness Wheel," a floor-mat map that prompts partners to systematically review the different "zones" of inner information—thoughts, feelings, wants, actions, sensory data—that influence the problems they may have to confront. By physically moving to each zone on the mat, and addressing each other with information appropriate to that zone, couples learn the fundamentals of talking effectively. Especially by getting their wants and feelings out in the open, Miller believes, partners can solve their problems.
"It's simple but powerful," says Miller, who drew on 25 years of research and every school and movement of psychology to create the mat. "In one month, couples can make dramatic changes in the way they relate. The learning isn't just intellectual; it's kinesthetic." And if there's one thing mates need to do, it's learn these techniques through every portal to the brain, so they can access them during times of stress when the natural impulse may be to attack or run away.
"The map also helps couples create a common operating system," Miller says. Most of all, he says it helps a person manage him- or herself—and, pointedly, not the other. "They allow individuals to stay engaged in a situation—connected with themselves and their insides, and their spouse and their spouse's insides," Miller says.
Around the same time Miller was putting together his ideas, Bernard Guerney, Ph.D., then a young professor of psychology at Penn State, now professor emeritus, and ever a maverick thinker, was coming to the conclusion that all psychotherapy is really psychoeducation. "Therapy is simply education after a problem develops," he says. Having concluded that it was more efficient for couples to help each other resolve their own difficulties, he created a course called Relationship Enhancement (RE). Its starting point is empathy, or compassion training—learning to see things from a partner's perspective. Empathy, Guerney insists, is what people are really seeking in marriage, and this expectation represents a major break with the past: "People are looking for someone to be emotionally supportive, a friend, a helpmate, a soulmate."
First and foremost in RE is empathic listening, then comes empathic responding. Partners learn how to express themselves in an honest way that helps their mate preserve their self-image without invoking defensiveness. "You need to present your pain—pain your partner has caused—in the context of your love for him or her, so he or she will be willing to make changes," says Guerney. "To convey one's feelings to one's partner is transformative to both."
Guerney, who now runs the National Institute of Relationship Enhancement in Bethesda, Maryland, has come to see that marriage partners typically don't express their needs. Over time, many learn not to ask for what they want—while they secretly wish their partners understood these wants. "Their frustration builds," says Guerney, "so then they ask for what they want—but in an attacking way. And that guarantees they won't get it. Hostilities worsen and partners withdraw." Guerney says people have to learn to ask for what they want in a nonthreatening way that's likely to lead to cooperation. "It creates a positive cycle that keeps love alive and growing," he says.
Using the X-ray as a guiding metaphor, Guerney encourages couples to look for feelings and motives their partners haven't expressed. "It's only then they can begin discussing what they can do to help themselves and each other," he says. Guerney describes this as a process of identification, of not emphasizing the differences between people. "We teach people to imagine themselves as the other person."
To help couples get it right, trained coaches work closely and privately with each couple, showing them what to do. "Most people react reflexively," Guerney says. "We help them realize they always have choices in interactions. We slow down the process of responding so that they can see their choices and take control of their relationship."
Guerney's program, like Miller's, has been validated by independent research demonstrating its effectiveness. The evidence shows that RE benefits all partners, while distressed couples make the greatest gains.
Premarital Relationship Enhancement
Where RE fosters identification and shared meaning between partners, Markman has built his course. Premarital Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP), to revolve around their differences. It takes fighting between couples as a given and aims to promote better—and egalitarian—fighting as partners air their gripes and concerns. Not that PREP's premise is that you can say anything you want, any time you want. Markman has established ground rules for handling conflict in ways that he says "protect a marriage from the ravages of poorly handled emotion." His protocol is called The Floor. The structure it imposes on speaking and listening is taught nationally in a series of group lectures that alternate with extensive private coaching sessions.
The technique, says Markman, is deceptively simple. "The Speaker" speaks, usually stating a complaint—without placing blame: It really makes me angry when you don't call and dinner is waiting on the table. "The Listener" doesn't respond or justify him or herself; he or she just demonstrates they've heard the comment by repeating it. "To be heard is a powerful tool by itself," Markman says. "It's at the core of all intimate relationships. You don't even need to solve the problem. In fact, it's critical not to resolve things, and just be heard by your partner. People want understanding from each other, not resolution. Couples are really arguing over things from the past. Once they clear the air, things get resolved by means of acceptance." During the private sessions, conducted by trained consultants, couples work on issues they haven't been able to resolve on their own.
If PREP puts most of its emphasis on the containment of negative emotions, it's because, Markman says, that's what takes a great deal of skill training; it's working against biology, which programs us to step up the attack or withdraw altogether. "If couples don't have good skills for handling problems," adds Scott Stanley, Ph.D., a codeveloper of PREP, "the negative overwhelms the positive in their relationships. Over the years, couples don't make time for positive experiences—and they tend not to protect these experiences from conflict. It's important to keep anything negative out of positive time together. It's our belief that with some protection, the positive parts of a relationship can and will flourish."
Handling conflict in a manageable way also fosters couples' commitment to work at their marriage. "For couples about to be married, it prevents an erosion of the positive," Markman says. The trick is being heard by one's partner; it's just damned difficult. We all have a variety of filters—levels of emotional arousal, expectations, fears, cultural beliefs, beliefs acquired in our families of origin, differences in style and pace, a need for self-protection—that distort the unpleasant messages our partners send. What's more, we're usually busy preparing our rebuttal. So what a woman thinks is a perfectly neutral statement may land like a bomb on her husband.
We Can Work It Out
What's more, says psychologist Clifford Notarius, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., partners are not good at giving immediate feedback on how their messages are being received. This is especially true of unhappy couples. So Notarius has developed a course that helps couples hear eachother, and give and get necessary feedback. But even before that, he bolsters their sense of relationship efficacy, their belief that as a unit they can get through this stuff. He calls his course We Can Work It Out, because it highlights the importance of expecting success. He says his studies show that couples who believe they can resolve their differences remain happy even under stress.
The belief in efficacy can be cultivated, Notarius says, pointing out the very fine line the course treads: "At the same time you want a couple to believe they can work it out, you also want them to feel they can do better."
In paying attention to dimensions beyond skills, Notarius concentrates on how couples understand their relationships. First he helps them articulate what they want their marriage to look like. Then he shows them the skills to help them get there, because only then will they be motivated to learn.
While the skills component of Notarius's course bears many similarities to PREP—Notarius and Markman were both students of innovative researcher John Gottman, Ph.D., and together and separately pioneered observational studies of how marriages work—it has its differences, too. "The big question," says Notarius, "is how to get people to put into practice what they learn. As a result, we put a coach with each couple 80 percent of the time."
Then there are the big cardboard signs Notarius has couples use. "We're all lousy listeners," he says, "because we're all fragile. We don't want to hear we're the source of our partner's pain." To help people become aware of how their words affect each other, Notarius designates one partner as "the Listener," who holds up reaction cards—large signs with either a plus, minus, or neutral sign—as "the Speaker" speaks. Absent such clear feedback, he says, spouses don't understand why their partner's later response is an attack.
Marriage Survival Kit
What couples need to focus on, Gottman advises, is their repair attempts. "Everybody messes up," says the University of Washington professor of psychology. "The four horsemen of the marital apocalypse that I identified—criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling—are predictors of divorce. Everybody does them to some degree. But some couples deal with them successfully."
Gottman recently summarized his 25 years of research and turned it into the Marriage Survival Kit, a weekend course for couples, taught at the Seattle Marital and Family Institute. He says that what makes couples' attempts at repairing their relationships work is not how they fight but what goes on in everyday, relaxed situations. These situations give partners a positive perspective, so that when they get a blast of negativity from their spouse, they can ignore it and take in only the information in what's being said. In short, it's the mindless, mundane moments of marriage that are the makers of romance.
Gottman says that in successful marriages, it's in those little moments that so much goes on. Happy couples make what he calls "love maps": They find ways of knowing one another and updating the information regularly. "A fondness and admiration system is active, particularly in the husbands," he says. "Those guys are thinking about the stuff they love and admire in their partners, even when they're not together. If you were to open up their skulls, you'd see they allocate a lot more brain cells to their marriages and the world of their partners than guys who wind up divorced." There's a balance of what Gottman characterizes as "turning towards versus turning away," which builds up the "emotional bank account" of relationships. Partners simply connect in tiny, unremarkable, emotionally neutral moments.
Gottman believes these otherwise unremarkable moments add up and put couples in "positive sentiment override," which in turn determines their disposition when it comes to problem-solving and the success of their repair attempts. So when one partner says something with irritability, the other sees it as neutral. Gottman urges couples—especially men—to see that the irritability or anger behind complaints is really just a form of italics. By positively responding to their partner's irritability, spouses keep their partner's complaints from escalating into criticism. In The Marriage Survival Kit, Gottman teaches couples five basic skills for conflict resolution.
To make sure couples can actually accomplish in their everyday lives what they've learned, Gottman brings them back six months later for a "booster shot," a one-day workshop. He also checks in on them via survey every three months to see how they're faring. Couples still having problems can come back for a special session with a clinician.
Practical Application Of Relationship Skills
Relationship difficulties are resistant to change for a very specific reason, says Falls Church, Virginia, family therapist Lori Gordon, Ph.D. Marriage has a devilish ability to tap into emotional issues from our past, especially from our families of origin. So Gordon developed Practical Application of Relationship Skills, or PAIRS, which reaches particularly deep and ties the cognitive and emotional components of love to their historical background.
Gordon believes that the past usually manifests itself in hidden expectations and assumptions in relationships. She says that as long as people remain unaware of them, they act as saboteurs to love: "Most unhappy partners feel disappointed, if not outright betrayed, because what they expected to find in their relationship either hasn't happened or stopped happening."
We hand our partner an invisible ledger, displacing onto a current partner the blame for past hurts. We hope they will prove they are not the person who hurt us, while we expect them to make up for previous hurts—hurts that enter our awareness only when we feel frightened or disappointed.
On that ledger are what Gordon calls "love knots," riddles exposing the contradictory nature of our many expectations. And they read like relationship haiku. For example, Love Knot #1: If you really loved me, you would know what I want, and you would do it. Since you don't, you obviously don't care. So why should I care for you, or for what you think, feel, say, want, or do? When you tell me what you want, I won't be very interested. I will be withholding.
Over the 120 hours of PAIRS class time, couples hone their communication skills. In addition to learning how to argue, they also learn how to confide in each other through a structured conversation called the Guide for Dialogue. "It's not enough to work on communication," Gordon says. "You need a cognitive understanding of the way you react to your partner."
Couples who take any of these courses discover that their skills work in other areas—parenting, the workplace, the community. Learning how intimate relationships operate is really a tool for managing the self. Says Markman, "We have to get away from the idea that knowing how to be in a relationship requires therapy. People don't feel bad about going to a ski instructor." Or taking driving lessons. So why should reaming how to operate a relationship be any different?
Taking The Floor
The Floor Premarital Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) takes fighting between couples as a given. The course's creator, Howard Markman, Ph.D., says its aim is to teach partners how to do it right. Ground rules are established via The Floor, where one partner becomes "the Speaker," the other "the Listener." And then they switch.
Rules for the Speaker:
- Speak for yourself. Don't mind read.
- Keep statements brief. Don't go on and on.
- Stop and let the Listener paraphrase what you say.
Rules for the Listener:
- Paraphrase what you hear the Speaker say.
- Focus on the Speaker's message. Don't rebut.
Rules for Both the Speaker and the Listener:
- The Speaker has the floor.
- The Speaker keeps the floor while the Listener paraphrases.
- Share the floor.
Marriage Survival Kit
John Gottman, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, says his studies show that couples whose relationships remain happy and stable know how to successfully repair problems. His Marriage Survival Kit teaches partners five basic skills for conflict resolution.
- Use a softened start-up. Present your complaints without criticism. Criticism involves a global attack or blaming of a partner, and only incites defensiveness.
- Accept influence. Positively take in your partner's attempts to request things of you. In good marriages, both men and women freely give and receive influence from each other. Since women are already good at accepting influence from men, Gottman finds, a husband's role becomes critical in predicting whether a marriage will survive. To the degree that men can accept influence from their wives, marriages succeed.
- Repair, or put the brakes on conflict. This means doing anything to halt or reverse negativity. Gottman gives couples a 72-point repair checklist, which includes statements such as "I'm feeling sad," and "Let's start all over again." Even "Will you shut up and listen" is usually a repair attempt.
- Make use of physiologic soothing. Men are more physiologically aroused during conflict—a factor that often prompts withdrawal, which is deadly for relationships. They will remain engaged in problem-solving only if they or their partners take specific steps to calm them down. One of the best ways to do this is to declare a "time out" during heated discussions, and reconvene after at least 20 minutes of thinking about something else, or nothing at all.
- De-escalate discord. In good marriages, couples actively de-escalate conflicts by doing things like injecting humor into situations or planting a kiss on their partner's cheek. Unfortunately, this is the one behavior Gottman admits he can't program. It just happens when couples have a positive perspective.