How conflict can work for couples

There are many different ways to handle conflict with your loved one. But when it comes to maintaining a stable and lasting romantic relationship, some “conflict styles” are better than others. Like other couples, military couples can benefit from taking a good look at how they handle differences and disagreements. For example, what happens when you and your partner disagree? Do you raise your voices and hash it out? Do you sit down and try to figure out a solution? Do you brush it under the rug and let it work itself out with time? Or maybe you do some combination of these or something else entirely.

While there’s no right or wrong answer to how you handle differences, the bottom line is that stable couples tend to handle conflict in ways that don’t degrade or damage their relationship. That doesn’t mean there aren’t arguments—it just means that the good interactions outweigh the bad ones, and the bad ones don’t go below the belt.

Take a look at these 3 different (and functional) ways couples might address conflict. Decide which style describes you best, and learn some tips to optimize your “conflict performance.”

Cool & calm

Partners who are cool and calm tend to “agree to disagree” rather than hash things out. If you downplay differences and focus on similarities, it’s a telltale sign that you practice the “avoidant” style. While avoidant partners might steer clear of specific conflicts, they don’t avoid each other or emotionally withdraw from their relationship.

  • Pluses and pitfalls: Avoidant partners are often spared from the messiness and hurt that can sometimes accompany a heated disagreement. Still, if you avoid emotional expression, it can create distance and even lead to feelings of loneliness.
  • Check yourself: Do you avoid conflict? Do you feel that openly disagreeing and sharing feelings creates more hurt than it helps? Do you think issues tend to work themselves out with time and flexibility?
  • Try this: Develop coping strategies to keep from feeling overwhelmed and withdrawing during an argument. Try asking for a break when the discussion feels too intense and commit to coming back until things are resolved. It’s important to stay engaged: Show you’re listening by repeating back what you heard and make sure you understand your partner’s point of view.

Steady & supportive

“Validating” partners who are steady and supportive tend to focus on hearing each other’s perspectives and respecting differences even when they disagree. In addition, you’re open about problems and likely to focus on handling them together. Steady and supportive partners are likely to be happier in their relationships too.

  • Pluses and pitfalls: If you address conflict with respect and thoughtfulness, then you can help keep calm and grow emotional intimacy. But some romances are at risk of slowly turning into friendships if the passion (that sometimes accompanies conflict) is missing.
  • Check yourself: Is it important to stay calm during a fight? Are you able to appreciate opposing ideas or perspectives? Do you value compromise over persuading others to take your position?
  • Try this: Practice makes (almost) perfect! Positive communication is all about increasing the listening and empathizing skills you already have. Still, make sure you’re being heard when you feel strongly about something. Also remember to show affection and keep that intimacy spark alive.

Hot & heavy

“Volatile” partners openly and willingly confront conflict. They’re also energetic and not afraid to passionately disagree. In addition, you might be competitive and spend a lot of energy trying to persuade each other to change views.

  • Pluses and pitfalls: Lots of passion between partners is an important part of keeping your romance spark alive. But when it comes to conflict, all that energy can sometimes be hard to channel, leading to nitpicking, fighting, or conflict escalation.
  • Check yourself: Do you prefer to hash things out until they’re resolved? Are you comfortable with lively debates and open arguments? Do you value emotional expression, even if it gets heated sometimes?
  • Try this: During conflict, it’s key to show empathy and appreciation for your partner and his or her perspective, even if you’re struggling to find common ground. It’s important to be open about how you feel, but try to take some time to practice regulating your feelings to avoid conflict escalation. If things go too far, try to be accountable and apologize.

Debrief

There are many ways to make your relationship work, especially when it comes to handling conflict. No matter your style, remember to do your best to balance the good and bad. Keep in mind that your partner’s style might be different than yours, and things are better off when you can meet halfway.


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References

Busby, D. M., & Holman, T. B. (2009). Perceived match or mismatch on the Gottman conflict styles: Associations with relationship outcome variables. Family Process, 48(4), 531–545. doi:10.1111/j.1545-5300.2009.01300.x

Gottman, J. M. (1993). The roles of conflict engagement, escalation, and avoidance in marital interaction: A longitudinal view of five types of couples. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61(1), 6–15. doi:10.1037/0022-006x.61.1.6

Gottman, J. M. (1994). What Predicts Divorce: The Relationship Between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Holman, T. B., & Jarvis, M. O. (2003). Hostile, volatile, avoiding, and validating couple-conflict types: An investigation of Gottman's couple-conflict types. Personal Relationships, 10(2), 267–282. doi:10.1111/1475-6811.00049

Ricco, R. B., & Sierra, A. (2017). Argument beliefs mediate relations between attachment style and conflict tactics. Journal of Counseling & Development, 95(2), 156–167. doi:10.1002/jcad.12128