Got Conflict? How Couples Counseling Can Help

You may dream of a marriage without conflict, but that’s just not realistic.  Conflict is inevitable in any committed relationship.  

The fact is, no two people are exactly the same. We all view the world through unique lenses that are colored by our family history, our personality, our temperament, our education, our life experiences, etc. Conflict is simply unavoidable in a relationship.

That doesn’t mean, however, that your marriage is doomed to endless fighting. Conflict might be inevitable, but it can be managed effectively. Learning how to manage conflict can result in tremendous improvement in your relationship.

What can help? Couples counseling.

How Can Couples Counseling Help You Deal with Conflict?

The need for good communication in a marriage is a key aspect addressed in marriage counseling. Good communication leads to better understanding, since what may seem clear to one partner could be unclear to the other. Both partners have to learn to speak up and plainly express their needs and wants. Neither can expect their spouse to be a mind reader.

Couples counseling can also promote the development of a close friendship between partners. It teaches them how to make their marriage resilient – increasing mutual support and showing deep affection. This can help a couple improve their ability to be vulnerable and trusting in each other, especially when they reach a dead end due to a conflict.

What is more, counseling can provide the couple with a safe, non-judgmental setting in which they can work through their conflicts and/or remove barriers that prevent them from finding solutions. It will teach them new ways to identify conflicts, assist them in exploring their problems from a fresh perspective, and provide them with the tools to resolve their issues.

The Gottman Method of Couples Counseling offers an excellent blueprint for improving communication and effectively managing conflict when it arises. Dr. John Gottman is the author of this blueprint, and it is based on his many years of research about relationships.  

Couples typically encounter two types of problems:  resolvable problems and perpetual problems.  Resolvable problems arise, you find a solution, and it's over.  Perpetual problems, on the other hand, have no solution.  These are problems that recur over and over again, and they are usually due to the different colored lenses you both wear.  You essentially married or moved in with these problems.  

Most couples get stuck in gridlock about perpetual problems.  The goal in managing perpetual problems is to shift out of gridlock into effective dialogue and compromise.  

 Key Components of the Gottman Conflict Blueprint

  • A Softened Start-Up. In his research, Dr. Gottman learned that arguments tend to end on the same note they begin on.  A softened start-up avoids harsh accusations.  Both your choice of words and tone of voice are important.  Use an "I" statement to express how you feel - "I feel sad . . .   Then state the behavior or situation that you feel sad about.  Be sure it's worded as a complaint rather than criticism.  Follow up by stating the change you would like to request. Express a positive need; don't just say "I need you to stop doing that."  

Using a softened start-up increases the likelihood that your partner will respond in a positive way instead of becoming defensive, which is what happens when you use a harsh start-up.

  • Listen to Your Partner's Feelings and Needs With Curiosity and Empathy.  Don't deny your partner's feelings by telling them they shouldn't feel that way.  Try to avoid becoming defensive and angry.  Ask open-ended questions to get a better understanding of what your partner is trying to communicate to you.  This does not mean that you must agree with everything, simply that you understand and can validate your partner's feelings and needs.
  • Learn How to Repair.  A repair is any statement or action that de-escalates and slows down a negative turn in the conversation.  The Gottman Repair checklist offers suggestions for six ways to repair.
  1. An "I Feel" Statement, e.g., "That hurt my feelings."  
  2. A "Sorry," ,e.g., "My reaction was too extreme.  I'm sorry."
  3. "Get to Yes," e.g., "I never thought about it that way."
  4. "I Need to Calm Down," e.g., "I need your support and patience right now."
  5. A "Stop Action," Statement, e.g., "This isn't going well. I'm getting too upset. Let's take a break and calm down."  
  6. "I Appreciate," e.g., "That's a good point." 

When a repair attempt is made, it helps if the other partner can recognize it and respond in a positive manner.

  • Accept Influence From Your Partner.  Recognize that your partner has good ideas and opinions and be open to them.  Avoid closing yourself off by insisting that your way is the only way to resolve a problem.
  • The Art of Compromise.  Compromise is your way out of gridlock.  Think about what is most important to you, the core of the issue that you feel you cannot give up, then identify where you can be flexible outside that core.  Make the core as small as possible and the flexible area as large as possible.

Remember that for couples counseling to truly help you handle conflict in your relationship, you must understand that many factors can affect its potential success or failure.  

First, don't wait until your problems are too deeply entrenched.  

Second, if you like the Gottman approach to conflict, find a counselor who is trained in using this method who feels like a good fit for you.  

And third, both of you must be motivated to absorb and apply what you learn in counseling sessions.

It's not your counselor's responsibility to fix your marriage - it's yours!  Take on the challenge.  The results are worth it!