Conflict is inevitable in any healthy relationship, but the way in which you and your partner handle yourselves when engaged in conflict will heavily affect the state of your relationship. For example, the outcomes will be significantly more positive if you can both stay calm and effectively communicate, compared to if you both escalate the argument until you’re screaming at each other. You’ve probably been in or witnessed both kinds of fights, and it’s clear which conflict style will result in more positive outcomes.
While arguments may become heated, unpleasant, and stressful, there’s a particular pattern that all happy and satisfied couples follow (and avoid!) to ensure they resolve their issues in a productive and constructive manner.
The first indicator is the frequency of conflict.
Arguing is Healthy, Until It’s Not
Everyone has that friend who’s always complaining about how frequently they fight with their partner; it’s as if everyday there’s a new issue that’s tearing the relationship apart. As they explain the nature of the arguments, it becomes clear that your friend isn’t entirely happy or satisfied in his or her relationship.
Laursen & Hafan (2009) explain why your friend is so dissatisfied in their relationship with the model below. They argue that the amount of conflicts is related to damaging outcomes. The graph looks like a hockey stick, with the costs of conflict decreasing from zero (point A) to the mean (point B), and then increasing rapidly from that point of inflection. Your friend is at or well beyond point C, which means they’re fighting frequently with their partner, creating more and more detrimental outcomes. Such detrimental outcomes create negativity and animosity between partners, greatly weakening the relationship fight after fight.
Point A represents zero conflicts in the relationship. This is detrimental in itself because it implies that the couple fails to recognize the other’s needs in the relationship. This failure shows that they aren’t close or supportive towards each other, creating a completely different set of problems.
Arguments until point B, which represents the mean number of conflicts, are good for any healthy relationship, as long as couples fight in a positive manner. However, as the number passes the mean, the negative outcomes of conflict increase significantly. Point C represents a couple that fights very frequently and is heading in a negative direction (such as in the example above).
This model shows that couples that are better off fight less frequently, implying that they fight only when it’s necessary. Past a certain point, arguments come with a higher and higher cost.
But when you’re in a fight, here’s how to win it, together.
How to Lose Together
Before discussing good habits, let’s walk through the pattern of divorce. You want to avoid these reactions because they come at the cost of your relationship, especially over a long period of time.
The typical first stage of a fight is the woman initiating combative behavior. This negative start-up model is the “escalation of conflict from one person’s neutral affect to the other partner’s negative affect” (Gottman, Coan, Carrere, & Swanson, 1998). This means that women begin fights, changing their partner’s neutral emotional state to a negative one. Studies show that wives’ negative start-up predicts divorce (Gottman et al., 1998).
The next treacherous step is the husband responding negatively by refusing to accept influence from his wife. This is where the Four Horsemen (contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling) will manifest because they imply that “winning” the argument is more important than your partner (Gottman et al., 1998). It’s often difficult for men to accept influence from their wives because men are programmed to crave influence, respect, power, and dominance. However, it’s critical that both partners in the relationship share power and decision-making. Without this even division, it’s very difficult to sustain a marriage. In fact, divorce was predicted by a husband’s refusal to accept influence from his wife (Gottman et al., 1998).
The next step is the wife reciprocating low-intensity negativity in kind. Let’s pull apart what that means. Low-intensity negativity can come in the form of sadness, anger, whining, tension, fear, or domineering. Reciprocating it in kind means that anger is met with anger, or domineering behavior is met with more domineering behavior. Gottman et al. (1998) suggest that marriages break down because couples can’t “put the brakes on” or break the cycle of the reciprocation of negativity.
Finally, the husband fails to de-escalate this low-intensity negativity. De-escalation is the opposite of start-up: translating from one partner’s negative affect to the other’s neutral affect. Husbands in happy marriages are typically the ones most likely to de-escalate low-intensity negativity (Gottman, 1979). However, if the husband (or wife) fails to do this, the fight will continue and probably worsen.
From this point, you’ve already both lost the fight because of the constant stream of negativity. It becomes increasingly difficult to de-escalate an intense environment when emotions run high and feelings get hurt, and you’ll both leave the fight feeling extremely exhausted and upset. It’s unhealthy if your relationship is centered on arguments like this, and you’re likely setting yourselves up for an unfortunate ending.
Luckily, there’s a way to turn it around and fight in a better manner.
How to Win Together
While there’s clearly a way to doom your relationship to failure, there’s a near-bulletproof pattern of conflict that results in healthy arguments to strengthen your relationship.
According to Gottman et al. (1998), the secret is to be gentle and soothing throughout the entire conversation.
As mentioned, women typically start most argumentative discussions across observational studies. However, unlike the pattern to divorce, the wife in this model softens her approach to confronting her husband. Instead of escalating her emotions from neutral to negative, she will remain in a neutral state and bring up her point of concern in a calm and constructive fashion. For example, “Hey, I felt really hurt that you were an hour late to date night because it seemed like something else was more important than our time together” is a lot calmer than, “You’re always late to everything, clearly you don’t care about our relationship.”
Because his wife didn’t escalate the situation, the husband doesn’t feel the need to fight back with one or many of the Four Horsemen. Rather, he accepts influence from his wife by listening to her argument and by being sympathetic. He then de-escalates any low-intensity negative affect, such as sadness. For example, he could say, “I understand why you felt so hurt. I’m really sorry I forgot, I’ll be sure to set a reminder in my calendar next time.”
The wife feels as if her husband understands the problem and is ready to work on it together. She then uses humor to soothe her husband and make him feel better. Gottman & Levenson (1988) predicted that the physiological state of the male is likely to be the most important determinant escalation of negative affect and emotional withdrawal. This means that marriages will succeed depending on how much the husband can be soothed, whether by the male soothing himself or the wife soothing him. The study by Gottman et al. (1998) showed that those in stable and happy marriages have higher probabilities that the wife’s use of humor significantly decreased her husband’s heart rate. They also showed that the lack of physiological soothing of the male is a predictor for divorce.
The husband should then use positive affect and de-escalation to soothe himself. This could come in the form of being affectionate to his wife, which is likely to reduce his heart rate if he’s in a happy marriage. It could also come in the form of directing the conversation to a more positive topic.
The Active Listening Model Isn’t Enough Anymore
One of the most popular, widely accepted, and influential theories for conflict resolution is the active listening model. This is when one person, such as the wife, states her concerns directly to the other person, such as the husband. The husband will then objectively summarize his wife’s concerns, validate and soothe her feelings, and respond in a calm manner. This cycle will continue until the couple resolves the issue.
This interaction sounds good in theory, so it’s heavily used in counseling and training. However, it’s not realistic in an actual conflict setting. Gottman et al. (1998) found that such exchanges of active listening almost never happen in real life. This could be because they often feel robotic and unnatural. Or maybe this model expects too much emotional compliance from two people who are already having difficulty managing their emotions in a state of conflict.
Because of their rare occurrences, it’s impossible to tell whether they have an impact on marital outcomes. Even couples in happy and stable marriages don’t naturally use the communication behaviors the active listening model recommends.
However, there’s an intuitive replacement: Positivity.
The Pillar Called Positivity
The key to a healthy and constructive relationship is positivity, especially in the face of an argument. While it’s oftentimes very difficult to maintain a positive attitude in heated situations, it’s imperative to the success of a marriage.
Gottman et al. (1998) revealed that positive affect was the only variable that predicted marital stability. It was also able to separate stable, happily married couples from stable, unhappily married couples. This means that couples who are more positive towards each other are not only potentially more stable, but they are also potentially happier in the long run.
Gottman (1994) further proves this point. In this study, he observed that stable marriages had a ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions throughout an argument of 5 to 1, whereas the ratio was .8 to 1 in unstable couples. This is a significant difference and emphasizes the importance of positivity for a happy and stable marriage.
The only bulletproof model for conflict resolution is one of gentleness and soothing. A helpful way to reframe an argument with your spouse is to think about it as the two of you against the problem, rather than you against each other. Keeping this in mind will make it easier to follow the pattern of success and avoid the pattern of divorce.
The next time you engage in a conflict discussion, try to incorporate some of the steps in the pattern of success. With anything, it will take time and practice to relearn how to argue and communicate disagreeing thoughts with your partner. However, with patience and a common goal, marital happiness and stability are right around the corner.
Gottman, J. (1979). Marital interaction: Experimental investigations. New York: Academic Press.
Gottman, J. (1994). Why marriages succeed or fail. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Gottman, J.M., Coan, J., Carrere, S., & Swanson, C. (1998). Predicting marital happiness and stability from newlywed interactions. Journal of Marriage and Family, 60, 5-22. Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/kesodm6
Gottman, J.M. & Levenson, R.W. (1988). The social psychophysiology of marriage. In P. Noller & M.A. Fitzpatrick (Eds.), Perspectives on marital interaction, 182-200. Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/kzks9u2
Laursen, B., & Hafen, C.A. (2010). Future direction in the study of close relationships: Conflict is bad (except for when it’s not). Social Development, 19, 858-872. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9507.2009.00546.x