Every relationship has troubled stretches when partners disagree – but not every couple handles disagreements the same way. Since the way a couple handles conflict can shape their relationship (and their odds for a future together), it’s a good idea to consider what kind of approach you and your partner are taking – and what that approach says about your relationship as a whole.
Though every couple’s specific approach to conflict is unique, John Gottman, a researcher who explores the dynamics between partners, has found that couples with healthy relationships typically fall into one of three general categories: validating, volatile, and conflict-avoiding. He found that other couples who use a style of disagreeing that he calls “hostile” often divorce or break-up.
Validating couples tend to remain relatively calm during disagreements and work together to resolve them. You likely fall into this category if during a conflict, you and your partner are:
- Calm and emotionally in control
- Polite and respectful
- Empathizing with and validating each other’s feelings
- Open to compromise
- Consciously trying to find a solution that satisfies you both
Volatile couples tend to have easily-triggered and passionate arguments. You likely fall into this category if you and your partner:
- Are generally passionate, affectionate, and loving with each other
- Value each other as individuals and equals
- Have frequent conflicts
- Argue openly and passionately
- Make up passionately
- Express caring and fondness even as you argue
- Resolve differences
Conflict-avoiding couples tend to minimize differences and avoid conflict when possible. You likely fall into this category if you and your partner:
- Often ignore differences of opinion, especially if you don’t think they can be resolved
- Minimize differences that do exist
- Can easily accept differences, valuing similarities more
- Wait for problems to fade with time or try to fix problems on your own
Hostile couples, unlike the other ones, are at high risk for breaking up. Their relationship is dominated by negativity, and they may need couples therapy to help them rediscover love, affection, and warmth for each other… or to help them decide it’s time to move on. You likely fall into this category if you and your partner:
- Frequently criticize each other, blaming problems on faults of character
- Feel the need to protect yourself from attacks by your partner
- Don’t try to truly listen and understand each other
- Interact more like enemies looking to win than teammates looking for a mutually satisfying solution
- Are ineffective at resolving disagreements or don’t even try
You might notice that you sometimes, or in some ways, fit different categories. That’s okay – we humans beings are complicated creatures. The only time you have a real problem is if you and your partner remain hostile toward each other or emotionally removed. It’s not unusual for this to happen sometimes in long-term relationships. When it does, you can get your relationship back on track by coming together at a time of low tension and conflict to discuss the situation. When you reconnect with what you love and respect about each other, you can find your way back to a loving relationship. If you can’t do this on your own, you may need the help of a therapist. But once your relationship is strong again, your natural style of resolving issues (as long as it’s respectful and engaged) will likely serve you well.
Entries for the Relationships blog are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.