Conflict 101: From Style to Substance




While conflict is a natural part of relationships, we often don’t learn how to “do” it productively.  Why bother? Because having kids not only increases conflict frequency (at least in the first few years), kids also give us more topics to argue about!  Plus:

Relationship satisfaction is tied to how well we resolve conflicts and limit their negative impact.


Who’s Right?

Conflicts often turn into showdowns about who’s right (or wrong). Yet, truth is, we’re both right...partially. In other words, productive conflict isn’t about who’s right, but about figuring out how to get to a resolution as a couple.


What’s Important?

Mutual understanding shifts emphasis from who’s right to resolution and respect. While understanding isn’t the same as agreeing, it requires that we suspend judgment. We can increase understanding by (1) accepting spouses are different from us, (2) getting curious about those differences, & (3) allowing goodwill to guide us. Ask: 

What's important to you about that?  To be understood, explain, It's important to me because........  


Persistent Problems:

According to marriage researcher, John Gottman*, 70% of couples’ issues persist throughout their relationship. Persistent problems include disagreements around: neatness; alone/together time; sex/intimacy; finances; & other subjects you keep revisiting.

We can limit perpetual issues by avoiding triggers, and reducing conflict when it arises.


4 Primary Relationship Toxins

(Gottman’s Horsemen of the Apocalypse). At least one occurs in all relationships and they’re major contributors to relationship stress and dissatisfaction. When we use these toxins, our communication is focused on how we’re saying things vs. what we’re saying (style over substance). To shift to substance, we need to change our style from:

(1) Contempt/Disrespect/Sarcasm/Eye-­‐rolling (very toxic; strongest divorce predictor);

(2) Blame/Criticism/Insults/Finger-­‐pointing/Nagging/Judgment/Mistrust;

(3) Defensiveness/Denying Responsibility/Deflecting;

(4) Stonewalling/Withdrawal/Evasion/Shutting Down/Walking Away;

[Gottman recently added a 5th, which is most toxic:  

(5) Hostility/Coercion/Manipulation/Bullying.]


Tackling Toxins:

Here are some preliminary ways to shift from style to substance together:

(1) Name: Cop to your favorite toxins (the ones you trot out most);

(2) Trust: Take each other’s word for it when one of you calls out a toxin;

(3) Mood: Risk being playful or silly in your efforts to shift your conflict style;

(4) Strategy: Discuss how you can both become more aware of toxins:
-­‐ e.g., together, give the toxins silly names and call them out when you notice one -­‐ e.g., come up with a song about horses to signal when you think one’s trotted in


Based on John Gottman & Nan Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC Parent Advocate & Mom

Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC Parent Advocate & Mom

Rhona is offering a complimentary strategy session for Wholistic Beginnings members. Relationship Coaching is a confidential, fun and efficient way to reconnect as a couple, resolve challenges, and learn effective tools that you and your spouse will use for years in your personal and professional lives.

Email for more information.