Conflict Styles and Relationship Repair

I was interviewed for a CNN article by my dear colleague Dr. Ian Kerner about how to navigate relationship arguments in the “new normal.” I want to expand on my thoughts since conflict is part of life, and all relationships – from the bedroom to the boardroom – experience them.

In addition to the thoughts you’re having during the conflict, your body is having a physical experience of the conflict as well. This is one of the reasons that although you think you have resolved a conflict and “moved on” from it, you still have burdening feelings attached to it. You can move on rationally and intellectually much faster than your body can!

3 Conflict Management Styles

You may feel activated, meaning your body is on high alert and ready to either run away or fight the person in front of you. Also you might freeze as a coping or defense mechanism or become agreeable with the person in front of you just to let the moment pass.

This could manifest in your own conflict management style, which I divide into three categories:

  • Net and Sword
  • Stallions
  • Turtle

Net and sword style describes the dynamic when one person needs closure and resolution while the other one needs space. This feels like one person is casting their net to catch the other person and bring them closer while the other person is pulling out a sword to tear the net and get away. Stallions style is when both parties go head-to-head until they’re exhausted. Then they start all over again. The turtle style is where you both withdraw and try to avoid conflict at all costs.

Knowing your style will help you to ask for what you need (i.e., space, talking things through calmly, or discussing with passion and engagement) and strategize to meet both your and your partner’s needs.

Photo by Nikola Johnny Mirkovic on Unsplash.

Managing Feelings Before Conflict

Many couples ask me, how do we do all these things when we are already in the middle of an argument or fight. This is a very realistic question and here is the answer:

You need to learn how four main feelings are felt in your body and then name them before things escalate. Here are the four categories to remember:

  • Uncomfortable or annoyed
  • Hurt
  • Offended
  • Triggered

If you think about it, you’ll show up very differently if you feel hurt versus when you feel offended, so being able to categorize and name your feelings, for yourself and the other person, will go a long way. For one it will bring awareness to the situation, secondly, it will offer you time to pause so it is more likely that you will be responsive than reactive in the moment and third, knowing where your state is and what informs your energy in the moment, you can ask for what you need to calm the situation and de escalate the tension. Remember that all of these feelings are first felt in the body and then in your thoughts so knowing how your body feels with any of these given feelings is going to be your guiding post.

For example, a member of a pair with the Net and Sword style might say, “This hurts right now. I don’t think I’m in a space to contribute in a useful way here. Let’s cool off and come back to it. I will go for a walk and be back in an hour.”

The person (with the sword) who asked for space should follow through by returning to the their partner (even if they don’t feel like having the conversation just yet at the agreed upon time. It is important to have a specific time negotiated here otherwise the person with the net will feel extremely anxious and aboundened.

This is a great tactic, since we know it takes about 20 minutes for the body to calm down from a place of activation so you can come back together and address whatever the issue was in a calm state when your cognitive mind is actually present, not when your system is still activated in fight-or-flight. And if you both or one of you is still not ready you can sit quietly in each other’s presence so that your bodies could calm down together and create a sense of connection between the two (sometimes I ask my couples to sit back to back and breathe for a couple of seconds with no words). Some other times you might revisit the conversation and in other times you might jot down a note to re-open the conversation when you go for a walk together, etc.

Photo by Micaela Parente on Unsplash.

From Rupture to Repair

For the CNN article, Kerner asked me how we get “from rupture to repair” and how we can make a bid for peace in a conflict.

To clarify, rupture is any instance in which a disconnect, especially a sudden one, happens and leaves some sort of residue of feelings in one or both parties.

First there needs to be an agreement that a rupture happened; both parties need to be on the same page. Without blaming.

To make peace after a rupture, you need to know what works for you and your partner. One person might need a touch (i.e. a hug); another might need space to clear their mind and calm down; and another might need to go for a walk or a run to regulate their body before they are ready to come back together. Knowing your needs and communicating them in peaceful moments will create a shared understanding and even a plan for the next conflict.

The tool I give to my couples is A-ARM. It stands for Acknowledge, Appreciate, Reassure and Mend. So you would acknowledge what happened, appreciate the intensity of emotions, reassure them you’ll be there to work it through, of your love, of your commitment to the relationship, etc., and take action to mend the situation and heal from it.

If the person is not ready to come together, it’s helpful to know their style before the conflict even erupts. If you do, then you can say something like: “I know you might need some space right now. I’ll be in the other room and ready to hold you, talk to you, etc., whenever you’re ready.” You can even use the 20 minute cool down average and say “I’ll check in with you in 20 minutes if that’s okay.”

Knowing your own conflict style and that of your partner’s will help you resolve conflicts constructively, possibly even making your relationship stronger in the process. To help you have some conversations before another conflict erupts, consider discussing these questions with your partner. The “Conflict Literacy” level is a great place to start. Move onto fluency when you’re ready.

Conflict Literacy

  1. Do you know how your body feels discomfort? Hurt? Triggered or offended? Where in the body do you feel it? Can you tune into it to name it before engaging with your partner and escalate to the point of argument?
  2. Do you know your style of conflict engagement and management? (net and sword? Stallions? Turtle? Let me know if you don’t see your style fitting in any of these models.
  3. Do you remember the elements of A-ARM?

Conflict Fluency

  1. If you have conflict literacy already, are you able to name what you are actually feeling in an activating interaction with your partner before things escalate? Have you been able to do it successfully to prevent an escalation of an argument?
  2. When your partner announced their state of feeling or asked for what they needed, were you able to respect that and shift your way of engagement to help with the de-escalation?
  3. Have you been able to articulate what you needed and disengage effectively without triggering your partner in a heated moment?
  4. Were you able to apply A-ARM successfully?

Why you need to know where your clitoris is

The Guardian logoThe Guardian recently reported on a study that found 37% of Britons could not accurately identify a clitoris.

The work, “Public understanding of female genital anatomy and pelvic organ prolapse (POP); a questionnaire-based pilot study,” was published in the International Urogynecology Journal. El-Hamamsy, Parmar, Shoop-Worrall, et al. concluded “There was poor public understanding of external female genital anatomy and POP [pelvic organ prolapse]…”.

I find the results of this study a reason to create a blog to raise awareness and also introduce you to helpful resources to rectify this issue:

Orgasm Answer GuideThe clitoris is reported to be the most sensitive erogenous zone on a female body by many female-identified individuals and it is not just what we can see on the outside, as it also has a big part of it inside the vagina. We also have research to show that many women experience clitoral orgasm as a more intense form of sensation in comparison to other forms (you can reference our book Orgasm Answer Guide to learn more about these).

If 37% of Britons can’t find or identify their clitoris, then the sexual pleasure they experience or provide to a female partner will arguably be greatly diminished. Although working across the world, I have seen that many women incorporate clitoral touch in their experience of sexual pleasure while they might not be familiar with what it is called and where it is located exactly.

The study did not just ask about anatomy, but also inquired about pelvic organ prolapse [POP]. As The Guardian reported, “Whereas most people understood what stroke and diabetes were, 53% had an understanding of what a pelvic organ prolapse [is], while only 23% knew what fibroids were – even though both conditions affect a third of women at some point in their lives.” Nonetheless, being able to locate, identify and name various parts of our genitalia and reproductive organs (one being clitoris) will help us notice any issues or health concerns that might develop at any given time and be able to seek help from the appropriate provider in an appropriate way.

Co-author of this research paper, Stephanie Shoop-Worrall, an epidemiologist at the University of Manchester, brought up the correlation between knowledge and consent as well which is another critical reason as why everyone needs to have the knowledge and verbage to articulate about their genital and reproductive organs. She reminds us that: “If a doctor is going to examine you, or suggest any kind of treatment plan, you need to fully understand what’s going to happen, and the risks and benefits, to be able to give permission. If people are coming in for their hospital appointment and not understanding basic anatomy, or what’s even wrong with them, how can they properly consent to treatment?”

The good news is that adults can pursue their own knowledge, on an academic, anatomical, and personal level. Self-awareness is imperative for pleasure, health, and informed consent.

Two great resources on this topic that I can recommend are a book by my dear colleague Dr. Laurie Mintz titled Becoming Cliterate and an informative and accessible website titled Pussypedia .

Here are also a few questions to get you started on your own:

Sexual Literacy

  • When was the last time you went for a GYN check up? Did you understand what was explained to you? Did they explain it? Did you get to ask questions?
  • Have you ever read any books or proactively searched for any evidence-informed resource to educate yourself about your genitals and reproductive organs
  • What do you know about your genitals? Where did you learn what you know? How reliable were the sources?
  • Do you know if your genitalia has been altered in any way? What does that mean for your experiences and expressions of pleasure?

Sexual Fluency

  • How do you refer to your genitalia and its various parts? Did you have a name for your genitalia growing up? Would you have chosen the same name knowing what you know now?
  • Can you articulate different types of pleasure and pain/discomfort that you experience in the gental area with clear distinctions?
  • If you are in a relationship with a female partner, can you name their body parts? Have you asked them to walk you through different touches that feel good, ok or uncomfortable for them?


Modern Concepts of Love, Sex, and Pleasure

Asking for a Friend - Catriona Boffard - PodcastI sat down for a conversation with my dear friend and colleague Catriona Boffard, a clinical sexologist and psychotherapist in South Africa. Her podcast “Asking for a Friend” convenes conversations about sex, intimacy, relationships, and mental and physical health. I love that Catriona addresses the questions and conundrums we may feel too awkward asking ourselves, so they come out as “I’m asking for a friend (wink, wink).”

Catriona and I explored the different types of love we experience and what constitutes a pleasurable, healthy relationship. I appreciated the opportunity to parse out the differences between sexual chemistry and sexual harmony and even explain how attraction and love might not be enough to sustain a relationship. (Do you know the Patty Smyth and Don Henley song, “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough?”)

Our conversation was featured on Season 2, Episode 2: “Modern concepts of love, sex & pleasure with Dr Sara Nasserzadeh.” You can listen to it here.

CNN Feature: “Turn rupture into repair: How to navigate relationship arguments”

The stress of the last year and a half has frayed many relationships. Couples may not agree on their risk tolerance in relation to COVID-19; lockdowns, quarantines, and travel restrictions may have us feeling cooped up; and our social lives outside of the home, and the support and sustenance they normally provide, have been severely curtailed.

If this sounds familiar, then My dear colleague Dr. Ian Kerner’s CNN article, “Turn rupture into repair: How to navigate relationship arguments in the ‘new normal”” may be of assistance. I was glad to be tapped for my advice, along with more than a half dozen other colleagues. 

Namely, I offered counterintuitive advice to take the flight option of the fight-or-flight response. 

We know the body takes about 20 minutes to calm down after the fight-or-flight response is activated. I suggest: “Tell your partner that you’re not in a space to contribute to the discussion in a useful way, suggest taking a break with offering a specific time to come back to one another, and then return to it when you’ve both cooled off.”

You could workout or go for a walk, jump rope, call a friend, or meditate. Consider any activity that doesn’t bring you immediately back to the argument.

Couples therapist Barbara Gold offered the next step which I agree with: “But don’t ignore it. If a quick repair isn’t possible because one or both of you is agitated, make a plan to talk about it as soon as you’re both ready and able. Sweeping things under the rug is not the solution to stopping conflict.”

Kerner outlines seven other techniques to help you return to the relationship and begin repairing it. You can read the CNN article here. And here are a couple extra that I use with my couple and found effective: 

I suggest my couples have a “couples jar.” Anything that needs further conversation or to be revisited will go in that jar, so the next time you go for a walk, or have your weekly sessions with one another or your couples therapist you can take it out and make an attempt to discuss and resolve it. The conversation goes back in the jar until it is fully resolved from both of our perspectives. 

This is very helpful because you know there will be a time for you to come back to the issue so you won’t have to carry it around with you and let it cast a shadow on every moment of the coming days! 

It is also important to put away an hour a week (not asking for too much here) to connect and discuss any issues that need resolution. Like going to a therapist once a week. Don’t go over an hour. Having a time limit will help you preserve presence and consistency of energy throughout the hour. 

A Back-to-School Guide for Talking to Your Kids About Consent

A Back-to-School Guide for Talking to your kids about consent — sara nasserzadeh — photo shows a parent holding two children's hands; they are wearing backpacks.After a whole year of social distancing, many children are going back to school. In doing so, they will share physical spaces with their peers and others. As you are getting them ready to go back to the classroom, perhaps you have discussed what they’re excited or nervous about. But have you upgraded (or even started) your consent talk with them?

No matter your child’s age, it’s important to teach them about consent. 

The most important part of this conversation is that consent is not something inherently sexual in nature. Consent just means that we’re safeguarding our own boundaries, affirming our needs, and respecting the needs and boundaries of others. 

Our first conversations around consent start by being aware of our physical space and others who are in that space. This could be touching someone (whether it is a wanted touch or not) in a way that they don’t like or are hurt by. It could also be intruding upon someone else’s space, even if there isn’t any touching involved (e.g.spying on someone when they are using the bathroom).

Today, conversations about consent take a new level of priority because many parents whom I work with are frustrated and confused. They want to show their children that there should be trust, love, and affection in this world and on the other hand, they are scared that their child has violated somebody else’s boundaries or that they are being violated. 

Since sexuality is considered as the most private and personal space in most societies and the experience of pain and pleasure could be simultaneous in some sexual interactions, clarifying boundaries is crucial. Understanding and practicing consent is essential for all of our relationships — platonic, professional, or romantic — to thrive. 

So, when you’re putting together that first day of school list, don’t forget to add “talk about consent” to it. Here’s how to get started. 

1. Know what is age-relevant 

The way you talk about consent with a kindergartener, elementary schooler, a middle schooler, and a high schooler are all different. In fact, the conversations can vary greatly depending on where your child lands within each of those categories. 

For example, in early elementary school, your consent conversation will involve identifying when people are uncomfortable, asking for permission, and understanding your feelings. You’ll likely also be having conversations about what to do or who to talk to if someone touches you the way you don’t like (it could even be too much hugging). 

But, as children age, so does the conversation.  When your child is in middle school, for example, they are likely going to be coming across more media that is sexual in nature. They may also be thinking more about their sexuality and sex, and so conversations about personal boundaries, respect, and communication can become more nuanced. 

As children enter high school, their social world shifts yet again. Building upon the conversations you’ve already had, you may start talking about how alcohol or other substances can affect consent. 

So, know that you don’t have to cover every facet of consent during your first conversation. As we’ll talk about later, consent is something that should be talked about in an ongoing manner, and these conversations should build on each other depending on your child’s needs and social environment. 

2. Ask how they feel 

Emotional intelligence and communicating one’s feelings are critical foundations to understanding consent. If we don’t allow our children to express their feelings, we’re ultimately telling them that there isn’t much of a point in setting and expressing their boundaries. So, encourage them to open up about how they’re feeling. Open-ended questions work best here, and you can adjust them based upon the situation. Some examples are below: 

  •  How are you feeling about the new school year starting? 
  • What is something that has frustrated you recently? 
  • What new thing you would like to try?
  • What did you try recently that you didn’t quite like?
  • What was your favorite part of the day? 
  • What do you think you could do to feel better about __________? 
  • Why do you think ________ had that reaction? 

Talking about feelings can be uncomfortable for many people, so set the scene. By making feelings talk part of casual conversation (perhaps while preparing a meal, doing shared chores, or sitting down for a snack) you’re showing your child that how they feel matters to you and that talking about their feelings is normal. If your child has a particularly difficult time talking about their feelings, using a worksheet like this one or a book In My Heart by Jo Witek and Christine Roussey can help jumpstart a conversation.

3. Talk about bystander intervention 

What will or can you do if you see or think someone else’s boundaries are being violated?

During and outside of the school day, your child is likely to see things that don’t feel quite right to them. That might be someone being bullied, or perhaps it is something that they perceive to be unfair. It may also be that they are recognizing the signs that someone is hurting one of their friends. 

Regardless of the situation, you can help prepare them by covering some bystander intervention basics. While your child should never put themselves in harm’s way, they should know that their voice and actions matter. Teach them that if they see something wrong, they always have options.

For example, they can turn to the 3 Ds: Direct, Distract, and Delegate, depending on what they feel most comfortable with.

Direct: Call out something as inappropriate in a matter-of-fact manner. This might be something like “Hey, don’t treat him like that. Just leave him alone.”  

Distract: This technique is best used in larger social settings, and can be used to change the conversation or change someone’s focus. So, if someone is taunting someone or doing something inappropriate, a sudden change of subject, starting a new game, or even spilling a plate nearby can create a distraction and alleviate the atmosphere. This is best used by older children who can understand the nuances of a situation. 

Delegate: There will be plenty of times when children shouldn’t intervene in a situation on their own — and any situation merits talking to an adult — but in particularly intense situations, using delegation is helpful. Delegation means finding someone else who is better equipped to handle the situation, like a teacher or parent. If this is the method that your child chooses, it is important that you are equipped to handle it in a sensitive manner. First, you can applaud your child by recognizing something was not quite right. Second, thank them for trusting you with this information. And third, tell them what you will do with the information. Many children don’t tell their parents if something does not feel or look right because they are afraid of the parents’ actions. Which brings us to… 

4. Suspend judgment 

If you’re having regular conversations where you talk about boundaries, consent, and values, at some point, your child is going to tell you something that activates your parental radar. When that happens, pause, take a breath, and moderate your gut reaction so that you don’t cause them to shut down. Ask them to tell you more about what is happening. 

Our protective parental instincts can sometimes make us have an intense reaction, like raising our voices or asking many pointed questions, or even questioning our child’s judgment. But, doing those things can cause our child to emotionally shut down and be no longer willing to talk with us. 

So, rather than following your first instinct, take a pause. Ask open-ended questions (you have some options above) to better understand the situation. Get what information you can so that you can continue the conversation from an informed place, helping your child understand why what they’re describing is wrong or needs to be further addressed. 

5. Help them identify their boundaries

We can’t communicate our boundaries if we don’t know what they are. Many people don’t learn about their boundaries until one has been crossed and they feel upset about it. So, encourage your children to explore and identify their boundaries early on. 

You can model this by asking them permission questions like “Is it okay if I carry you now?” or “Would you prefer an egg or cereal for breakfast?” 

When we give our children ownership over their boundaries, feelings, and responses, we are really telling them that their boundaries are important to us and that we respect them. At the beginning of each new school year (or more often), sit down with your child and talk to them about things that they want to happen (“I want you to wake me up in the morning”) and things they don’t want to happen (“I don’t want you to pick out my clothes for me.”) 

During these conversations, you can talk about the critical boundaries like which parts of their bodies no one should touch or how to interact with strangers. 

And remember, different cultures have different core beliefs about what is appropriate or not, and different cultures show love in different ways. So, if particular types of touch or name-calling are considered affectionate in your family’s culture, but those things would be inappropriate if someone else did it, make sure your child knows. Otherwise, they might mistakenly have the mixed message that these are signs of love and attention, therefore when these behaviors manifest in other people, they don’t think there is anything inappropriate about them. They might even start using them on others. 

6. Plan for who they can talk to if something happens 

If something happens to your child or they see or hear about something happening to someone else, help them know who they can talk to. Let them know you’re always there to hear from them and help them in these situations, but also know that they may not come to you first. 

Depending on the context, they may talk to a teacher, guidance counselor, coach, or friend’s parent first. You can help encourage them to include you in the conversation by keeping the line open — if you are regularly talking to them about their feelings, boundaries, and perceptions of the world, they will be more likely to come to you with problems. 

At the beginning of the school year, come up with a list of “helpers” who they can turn to and make sure that they know that they can turn to any of the people on this list. Write it down to help them remember it. You can even make this a part of your open-ended questions, with something like “Who would you go to if a problem happened at school?” or “Who do you trust to talk to about issues that you experience?” 

7. Continue the conversation 

Talking about consent isn’t a one-stop topic. It needs to be something that continues throughout the lifetime — not just while your child lives at home with you, not just during high school, but all throughout life. 

As our boundaries and contexts shift, so do our conversations about consent. Keep the line of communication open and set a reminder for yourself to make sure you’ve brought up some of these topics recently. 

It’s easy to assume that our children are learning about consent or relationships in school, but many are not. You can ensure that they develop the skills to thrive in life and in their relationships using these 7 techniques. 

How do you talk to your children about consent? Let me and other parents know. It takes a village to raise our children and raise them well!