According to research carried out over two decades by The Gottman Institute, 69% of all conflicts experienced in relationships are what they describe as ‘perpetual’. These are conflicts that arise again and again due to the fundamental differences that exist between any two people.
69% of all conflicts experienced in all relationships are perpetual
The implications of this finding (which are also reflected in my own personal experience too) are two highly valuable and challenging insights on relationships:
1. You can’t run away from problems in search of a relationship without problems. Leaving a relationship and entering a new one, as tempting as it may be, will just leave you experiencing problems again in the new relationship. They may be different problems, but they will be persistent problems.
(It is important to note here though, that certain problems may be non-negotiable ones for you.)
2. The problems are not likely to go away, even if you try to get rid of them. As these perpetual conflicts arise from who you fundamentally are as individuals, trying to change yourself or your partner won’t work. “If only my partner went to therapy / get coaching, then we’ll stop experiencing these issues.”
So then, in the face of these daunting insights - we can’t run from these problems and we can’t get rid of them - what can we do?
According to the research, trying to solve perpetual problems is ineffective. Rather, we should aim to establish a healthy dialogue about the problems and make use of conflict ‘antidotes’ to manage conflicts. Without these, the perpetual conflicts can become gridlocked, eventually leading to emotional disengagement and the death of the relationship.
(Note: I believe that the insights also apply more widely and extend to other important personal and professional relationships.)
1. Increase the overall level of positivity in the relationship
The first step is to increase the positive experiences you have together. ‘Positive experience’ is as defined by the individuals in the relationship. This is anything that will help increase the feeling of friendship and affection towards each other.
The key skill to develop in yourself here is the skill of appreciation. Yes, right now things are a bit crap between you and your partner and sometimes they drive you nuts. But what do you appreciate about them?
The other thing to build on is asking what the other person in the relationship considers a positive experience and focus on providing that.
2. Increase positivity during conflict
The second step is learning how to inject some positivity during conflict. If this sounds like a contradiction to you, we’ll have to get creative here.
This might involve a comforting hand on the shoulder. A loving look. Or possibly even humour. Imagine a fight with a best friend in school or a close sibling - can you think of a time where humour was present in a real conflict?
“I love you, but sometimes you make me so frustrated when you don’t take out the garbage!”
“You’re so smart but can you stop being such a smart ass when we argue?”
Note in the examples above that there is undoubtedly conflict, but there is also an acknowledgement of love or admiration ("I love you" and "you're so smart").
3. Decrease negativity
The final step is to decrease the overall negativity in the relationship. The key here in this step is what Gottman calls ‘The Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse’. These are the biggest behavioural indicators that the relationship will fail, so it is crucial that these behaviours are identified and ‘treated’ using the respective ‘antidotes’.
Horseman 1: Criticism (Antidote: expression of need)
This can also be thought of as ‘blame’. It is the verbal attack of a person’s character or personality and assumes moral superiority over the other person.
“You’re so lazy.” “Why do you never ask me how my day was? You don’t care about me at all.”
The antidote to this horseman is found in what usually lies behind the blaming - a request that is not made and therefore not met. Behind the criticism “you don’t care about me” is an unmade request of “please show that you care about me by asking about my day”.
Horseman 2: Defensiveness (Antidote: taking responsibility)
The second horseman is defensiveness, or the refusal to accept responsibility or control over the current situation. It places you in the role of victim in order to ward off a perceived attack and reverses the blame.
The antidote to this horseman is accepting your partner’s perspective and offering an apology for any wrongdoing. The skill to develop here is to see the ‘1% truth’ in your partner’s complaint. Sure, you’re a person who respects boundaries (“You’re so overbearing!”) but if there was a 1% truth in what your partner is saying, are you able to find that and hear them?
Developing this ability to find the 1% truth in your partner’s complaint can help you to avoid being defensive and perceiving their complaint as an attack. This can set the foundations for healthier conflicts.
Horseman 3: Stonewalling (Antidote: self soothing)
The cold shoulder. Passive aggressive. Emotional and physical withdrawal.
“What’s wrong?” “Nothing.”
Stonewalling is a defense mechanism that you employ subconsciously to avoid the emotional pain that arises from conflict. Left unchecked, this can ruin important personal and professional relationships.
To overcome stonewalling, you can find ways of meeting the underlying need of emotional soothing. Find a good way to step away from the conflict and do something that is comforting with yourself.
Communicate to your partner that you’re not in a great place now to continue the argument and combine this with an act of affection. Note here that there is a clear difference between a cold emotional and physical withdrawal, and asking for what you need in that moment.
Hoseman 4: Contempt (Antidote: open communication and culture of appreciation)
According to Gottman’s research, this behavioural trait is the biggest predictor of divorce in marriages and is the most destructive behaviour in relationships.
“I am better than you.”
Contempt considers the other person below you. It is a truly mean act of disrespect, attacking the partner’s sense of self and self-worth. Examples include mocking, sneering, sarcastic comments, eye-rolling and other cutting behaviours - I’m sure you can think of many others from your own experiences.
“How many times do I have to tell you to take notes in meetings? Are you stupid or something?”
“Oh, late again I see. What the hell is wrong with you?”
“You’re so messed up and selfish. How can you be a life coach?”
Contempt is built on long-term negative thoughts about the partner and leads to more destructive forms of conflict. It is crucial to identify contempt where it is present in yourself and address it immediately as a priority.
The short-term antidote to contempt is to communicate your feelings and needs using “I” statements.
“It’s important to me that you take notes in meetings so that we can refer back to what was discussed.”
“I feel like you don’t value me when I end up waiting for you. Can we talk about how we can address this?”
The longer-term antidote is to foster a culture of fondness, admiration and appreciation. Here we can refer back to the skill of appreciation that we looked at earlier. Culture, as we know, is not built overnight but rather it is a culmination of small everyday actions.
You can think of this as the relationship’s immune system. Where there is a culture of appreciation, fondness and admiration, even when we get frustrated by the other person’s personality flaws and the perpetual conflicts we have with them, we still feel that the other person is worthy of respect.
Final word: the golden ratio - 5:1
In Gottman’s studies, there was only one predictor of relationship longevity where all other hypotheses failed. People in relationships that lasted reported a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative experiences.
By using the antidotes as discussed above, and by using the tools of appreciation (“What in the other person do you appreciate?”) and acknowledgement (“You are a hardworking person.”), we can look to improve this ratio without “doing” anything new.
Have questions on how to develop the skills in dealing with persistent conflict? Get in touch with Joey or let us know in the comments below!