It’s time for that Sound Relationship House party by Mr. John Gottman, the relationship expert extraordinaire. If you’re just tuning in, these are the past posts addressing this theory of couples therapy.
- Love Maps
- Share Fondness and Admiration
- Turning Towards
- The Positive Perspective
- Manage Conflict
- Manage Conflict: Accepting Influence
Here we are, still figuring out how to manage conflict. It’s quite an involved piece of this theory, which is not a surprise since conflict still seems to be a central point of all human interaction. Conflict in a relationship is normal. It’s all about how you handle it.
So as you can probably guess from the title, we’re talking repair and de-escalation here.
What is a repair?
Well, let’s say that you wake in the morning and say something sweet to your partner like, “How did you sleep, honey?”
They reply with something like, “I slept like shit. You kicked me all night and your snoring was terrible. I have bruises in my ribs thanks to your clown feet.”
That’s not nice, huh? So you think something like, “What a douche. Fine, enjoy making your own breakfast. Asshole.”
You go get in the shower and when you come down, there’s an extra cup of coffee sitting on the counter and your partner says, “Here, I made you a cup. You want me to make you some cereal?”
This is a repair. This is your partner’s way of saying, “I was a complete tool and I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”
Taking this repair and accepting your partner’s apology is big piece of what makes people successful at relationships. It can be tempting to say to oneself, “He didn’t apologize. I don’t hear an ‘I’m sorry’. He can pour that coffee down the drain! I’m not drinking his repair poison.” or “I hate cream in my coffee. Doesn’t he know me? He doesn’t know me at all. How ungrateful. He probably doesn’t even know my birthday is in two months. I hate him. Why can’t I have a unicorn? LIFE SUCKS.”
Both of those are viable options. They will make your relationship really crappy though and drag out a small (but jerky) comment into a 24-hour argument. Not ideal. This is why it’s important to recognize your partner’s attempts at “I’m sorry,” and commend them for recognizing that they were not very nice. Plus, free coffee.
What is de-escalation?
When Gottman was doing he studies on couples arguing, he hooked them up to tons of equipment that monitored all their physiological reactions during a fight; heart rate, body temperature, fidgeting, etc. He wanted to see if the way couples fought and their awareness of their body played a role in how they handled conflict. It did.
We all get pissed off. Whether it’s because of an argument, something our partner has just said, a ‘hot button’ issue, whatever. We all carry around baggage from friendships, relationships, our family. Some stuff just really bothers us. I know I’m angry because I’ll start spontaneously crying and I can’t form words. Generally, that’s when I know I need a time-out. I used to think that it was bad to walk away from a fight because I was surrendering or admitting defeat or something.
Turns out, a time out is the best thing you can do when you’re feeling overwhelmed by a conversation you’re having with your partner.
It’s actually physically impossible to hear and respond to what your partner is saying if you’re physiologically aroused. People cannot be reasoned with. There’s no amount of “I feel” statements or “I’m sorrys” that can fix an argument when one or both partners heart rates are above 100 beats per minute. That argument is doomed. It’s scientifically proven.
So, it’s important to take a walk, step outside, take some deep breaths, say “I need a moment, can we revisit this later?” Whatever you need to do to get back to your normal state of mind where a healthy and productive conversation can take place. Then come back, chat it out, agree to disagree, have a dance party.