Healthy Relationships: The art of Conflict and Repair
Recently some wonderful colleagues and I attended a workshop on couples counselling, (specifically Gottman Couples Therapy Level 1); and it was everything we hoped it would be. Not only were we building on our own professional knowledge and skills; it was actually (and we all agreed) extremely informative for our own personal relationships. The fact is, every relationship can do with some self-reflection, and as I sat there soaking up the information like a sponge, I couldn’t help but think about couples I work with now and, reflect upon my own.
No relationship can be perfect all the time. No matter how in-tune and strong a bond is, there will inevitably be times where conflicts occur – tears, yelling, the silent treatment, criticism and misunderstandings will happen. According to the Gottman Institute (which has conducted over 35 years of research), only 18% of couples are considered “Masters of relationships”. The majority are potentially “disasters”. Wow – this is a confronting statistic. Does this mean the majority of marriages or relationships end? No. There are many things couples can do to prevent, de-escalate and grow their relationship into the relationship they both want. And some couples do this organically (the Masters), but many couples need to put the spotlight on their relationship and make it a priority, before all that fire turns to ice.
When you think about an ideal happy couple, most of us would picture two people who never fight, have great regular sex and share lots of interests. However, would it surprise you to know that conflict is important? It allows a couple to adjust needs, to understand each other and gives an opportunity to grow connection. The key here is how it occurs – turning toward your partner rather than away is vital in building trust and commitment.
For example, you’ve had a busy day at work, come home, kids are noisy/whingy. Your partner rushes at you the minute you walk in the door (“where have you been? I needed you to help, you said you’d be home an hour ago”) and you immediately become defensive. This is the time when you might usually engage in a heated debate or walk away in a huff. However, this is an opportunity to ask and acknowledge what your partner is feeling; to understand and listen to why they might be upset. Yes, this might take some practice (counting to 3 and taking deep breaths before speaking may help!), and self-control; and we might not always get it quite right; but this is where the importance of repair comes in.
Repair can refer to many things – a smile, an attempt to slow things down, eye contact, humour, touch, positive tone, gentle words. It doesn’t have to mean an apology in words. Going back to the example, if understanding is given: “you look upset, big day? (use eye contact)”, the partner can either continue to “go off” or accept the attention and empathy being offered and repair as well “oh my god you wouldn’t believe it…is it wine o’clock yet? (repairs with humour)”. You can imagine how differently this scenario could play out right? Repair (particularly early repair) brings a couple back together and helps with emotional attunement. And one of the main predictors of repair working effectively is friendship.
It sounds so simple, but friendship in a couple is a foundation. It needs to be nurtured, maintained and strengthened; just as you would with your regular friends. Friendship means that you have respect and a deep understanding of each other; and so, will be better fit to withstand the inevitable storms that will come. So strengthen your friendship – make time for each other, show interest, experience things together and make it a priority to repair when conflicts inevitably arise.
If you would like to see us in person in the Shoalhaven and Wollongong areas or have an online appointment from anywhere to discuss your relationship then contact us today.