You can build strong relationships with others, even when you experience conflict with them. As long as your need to resolve the conflict(s) is not about being right, it is doable. Then, it takes two main ingredients. One, focusing on keeping the conflict meaningful, and two, trusting that you can resolve it together. Understanding that is a big part of developing strong relationship habits.
It happens frequently that I have a couple come into therapy asking me: “Do all relationships experience conflict?” I do believe they know the answer, so I reply humorously: “If you think otherwise, you’re either in denial or you’re in the wrong office!” Obviously, couples come to see me for different reasons, but many share the same concern about their level of conflict. They argue frequently and wonder if it’s still possible to increase their marriage satisfaction again.
So, I introduce them to the great work of Dr. Gottman:
Gottman studied long term marriages and the reason some are more satisfied in them than others. He found that the presence of disagreement and even anger within a relationship weren’t necessarily detrimental to the overall satisfaction in the marriage. Meaning, whether a couple fought often or not was not the reason they had a good or bad, satisfied or dissatisfied, loving or unloving marriage. Rather, he found that learning how to deal with disagreements in a productive way was one of the strongest indicators of a good relationship.
From his longitudinal studies Gottman concluded that there is a ratio of expressed positive exchanges to expressed negative exchanges that one can observe within a couple’s interaction. This ratio is 5:1, and can predict marriage satisfaction. In other words, the positive interactions in a marriage must exceed 5 times every negative interaction.
This means, for example, that for every expressed disappointment, you best come up with five compliments and/or affectionate caring gestures towards your significant other that day. This will offset the negativity caused by your expressed disappointment. The ideal number of five is in my opinion an optimal number to aspire to, but any increase in adding positive emotions / interactions will offset the negative ones.
To increase those positive interactions, try the following:
* Can you focus and express the aspects of your relationship that work well? * Can you use more humor with each other? Dance in the kitchen? * Can you find opportunities for more occasional hugs? * Can you create small rituals of “sharing good news” with each other? * Can you text each other short notes of appreciation? * Can you schedule a 15 minutes micro-date? Uninterrupted, fondness-focused time?
Get creative with your playful ways of interacting. You know your relationship style best, so get busy coming up with ideas of finding the good, moment to moment. It will add immediate pleasure to your lives and increase overall resiliency in your relationship. Not to mention that it will also add a thicker, cozier layer to your relationship, so when the next argument will come (and you know it will), it falls on softer ground.
Hopefully this will make any future argument less painful. After all, increasing pleasure and decreasing pain is a wonderful focus for any relationship.