What Healthy Couples Know About Handling Conflict

Learn how to implicitly communicate with your partner

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Enjoying a happy relationship depends not only on having fun together, but also on knowing how to handle conflict. Here are some insights about the conflict management and self-care habits of healthy and happy couples, also known as relationship “Masters.” See tips from Dr. John Gottman below:

“Masters” of relationships use a Softened Start-Up:

  • Begin with something positive. 
    • Don’t start like this: “We literally never do anything fun anymore. I feel like you don’t care about having adventures with me like you used to.” 
    • Start like this: “Remember when we went on that trip last summer? I’d love for us to do that again soon. What do you think?”
  • Express appreciation and gratitude. 
    • Don’t start like this: “You haven’t helped me with the housework for weeks. I’m exhausted and you don’t even notice.”  
    • Start like this: “It was so great to have your help clearing out the garage a few weeks ago. I’m wondering if you could help me organize the den this weekend?”
  • Start with “I” instead of “You.” 
    • Don’t start like this: “You don’t pick up the phone when I call. It’s so stressful when I can’t get in touch with you for long periods of time.”  
    • Start like this: “I get so worried when you disappear. Would you mind keeping your cell phone on you and checking it every once in a while?”
  • Don’t stockpile complaints. 
    • Don’t start like this: “You don’t show up on time to meet me, you’ve been late to the kids’ soccer games, and you’re always out. Do you even care?” 
    • Start like this: “I’ve been missing you lately. Let’s plan some time together as a family.” 

“Masters” of relationships also replace their criticism with a complaint: 

  • Rather than using the criticism, “You always talk about yourself. Do you even care about my day?” try the complaint, “I feel like I’m not being heard. Can we talk about my day?”
  • Rather than using the criticism, “You never pick up the dog from doggy daycare. Why is it always my responsibility?” try, “I feel exhausted. I need you to pick up Sprout from daycare this afternoon.”

Remember to be assertiveYou can imagine being assertive as a middle ground between two extremes: aggression and submissionScreams, whispers, manipulations, and passivity are all less practical (both in terms getting you what you want and nurturing a healthy relationship with your partner) than proactive and considerate communication. 

Asserting yourself from this middle ground tends to be productive, while acting from either of the extremes tends to create tension and conflict, whether through neglecting and denying your own needs or by forcefully discounting the needs of others.

Being assertive involves self-awareness and confident communication, which means expressing yourself in a way that shows respect for everyone involved.

Steps to Asserting Yourself

1.  Clarify what you are feeling (and be aware that your feelings result from your subjective perception of the situation, acknowledging responsibility for them).

2.  Figure out exactly what you want or don’t want, (and frame it as an “I-statement” to show that you own it, rather than inviting defensiveness: “I would like…” “I want to…” “I would appreciate it if…”)

3.  Choose a convenient time to address the problem (that works for both of you).

4.  Express yourself clearly, being explicit about specifics in your request – (your partner is not a mind-reader). This means identifying a particular behavior or circumstance you object to, not critiquing or expressing a problem with someone’s personality or identity. 

By working on these skills, you implicitly communicate respect for partner, for yourself, and for your bond. It might take some time and effort to get in the habit, but practice in applying what you’ve learned here can lead to an incredibly satisfying pay-off: less stress and more fun; the growth of trust and romance; a more satisfying and fulfilling relationship.

The Marriage Minute is an email newsletter from The Gottman Institute that will improve your marriage in 60 seconds or less. More than 40 years of research with thousands of couples proves a simple fact: small things often can create big changes over time. Got a minute? Sign up below.

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The Gottman Institute’s Editorial Team is composed of staff members who contribute to the Institute’s overall message. It is our mission to reach out to individuals, couples, and families in order to help create and maintain greater love and health in relationships.

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