We’ve spent a lot of time this week on The Gottman Relationship Blog discussing conflict in relationships from a theoretical perspective, focusing particularly on the destructive nature of contempt and criticism. Today, we would like to offer you practical, research-based tools to help fight these two horsemen.
So, what causes conflict? A lot of things. As Dr. Gottman’s research has shown us, however, most relationship conflict (especially gridlocked conflict) finds its roots in unfulfilled dreams. These are feelings of frustration and resentment that partners feel towards one another when their hopes and goals for the future are not being respected or honored.
To ensure that your dreams are being fulfilled, you must first understand what those dreams are. This is self care. Once you have a grasp on what your dreams are, then you are ready to share them with your partner. Take some time this weekend to consider your general “habit of mind.” Consider the following questions:
- What are your dreams, and what are the stories behind them?
- Do you feel comfortable sharing your dreams with your partner?
- What happens when you try to communicate about them? Do you feel heard?
- Do you truly listen to your partner?
- Do you talk over each other?
- Is there room for improvement?
Try tuning-in and noticing your mindset the next time conflict arises. Consider it in the context of these words from Dr. Gottman:
[The] strategy of discussing dreams when you encounter conflict does not come easily to many people. Perhaps that’s because we’re taught to stick to a narrow field of absolute facts when faced with opposition. If you believe there’s got to be a winner and a loser in every conflict, then you try to make your argument as objective and highly accurate as possible: otherwise you’ll be proven wrong. We lose a lot with this narrow approach – namely our ability to find shared meaning and connect emotionally. But once we broaden the landscape of our discussion to include dreams and hopes, we can see where our visions merge! We can find room for compromise.
How can you acknowledge the presence of two valid perspectives and identities? What can you do to support each other in following your individual and shared dreams? Here are a few suggestions for showing honor, support, and respect for each other’s dreams when you notice their presence in conversation:
- Ask questions about the dream. One of our favorites is “What’s the story behind that?” Dreams usually have a history or a narrative behind them – they often come from your partner’s past.
- Offer empathy. You don’t have to be ecstatic about this dream, but it may be helpful to express: “I understand why that is important to you.”
- Offer emotional support and validation. Even if you can’t directly help them to achieve their dreams, communicate: “I am behind you 100%”
- Participate in the other’s dream – read about the issue, help to make plans, offer advice if it is desired.
- Give support – child-care, transportation, whatever you feel able to offer.
- Join the dream on a trial basis – if it works well, consider joining it entirely – make it a part of your own vision.
Understanding the basis of each other’s dreams, each other’s most deeply felt hopes and desires for the future, is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have in a relationship. But it can’t happen overnight. To open up to each other requires trust, and building trust with yourself is the prerequisite. Keep these things in mind as you encounter opportunities to connect with your partner!
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