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?