This article is about conflict and the elegant compromise. I have borrowed this phrase, elegant compromise, from a trusted mentor/guide with whom I have had discussions regarding the meaning of conflict and how to approach it successfully. His words and ideas have influenced what is written in this article. Elegant compromise: a pleasingly inventive and simple agreement or understanding. We’ll return to this later on in the article!
Conflict is an inevitable part of relationships. Wherever there are two human being s with their own unique needs and desires, the occasion for conflict to arise will be present. It is the case that some people seem to flow smoothly through the experience of conflict and conflict resolution. But, for many others experiencing conflict can feel upsetting, uncomfortable, and disarming. And, sometimes, trying to resolve conflict can feel overwhelming and leave one with a sense of helplessness and maybe even hopelessness. I see this often with clients and I have experienced it personally in significant relationships. Yet, I think conflict gets a bad rap, especially when it comes to significant relationships. In these situations conflict often has a negative connotation, as if it is something that should be avoided. When it arises in a relationship its very existence can feel like a threat. I’d like to take the opportunity to provide you with some alternative ways to think about conflict and, in turn, conflict resolution with the hope that the paradigm shift will provide you with some opportunity to engage with conflict with more successful outcomes.
The Nature of Conflict
First, let’s take a look at the nature of conflict and the habits we have in regard to relating to conflict. In the late 1990s a pair of prominent research psychologists, John Gottman and Julie Gottman, published some research data that eventually became the basis for the book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (Gottman & Silver). Since then this information has been disseminated into the practice of relationship counseling, as well as general communication studies. There are a few core ideas from the research that can help us to understand why we might be unsuccessful in our conflict resolution attempts. Gottman provides a helpful way to frame the nature of conflict in significant relationships. He describes two types of conflict: resolvable and perpetual. Resolvable conflict refers to relationship differences (problems) that can be resolved. They are about something situational that doesn’t have a deeper meaning behind it. Examples could be differences regarding childrearing beliefs, differences in needs regarding the state of the home (one partner may be more lax than the other), differences in desire for how free time is spent, differences in desire for frequency of sex between partners. Perpetual conflict refers to problems that have no true resolution. They are problems that have deeper underlying meaning for one or both partners in the relationship. Examples could be differences regarding childrearing beliefs, differences in needs regarding the state of the home (one partner may be more lax than the other), differences in desire for how free time is spent, differences in desire for frequency of sex between partners. And, yes, these are the exact same types of problems that could fall into the category of resolvable conflict! Whether they fall into the category of resolvable or perpetual depends on what the meaning of the conflict is for each individual. Perpetual conflicts are an inevitable part of a relationship. In fact, Gottman’s research suggests that 69% of significant other conflicts fall into this category! Wow! So, if over 2/3 of our relationship problems are unsolvable we might as well throw in the towel right now, right?
Nope! Gottman’s research suggests just the opposite. It invites us to pull up our sleeves and do the work of learning how to engage with conflict, even the perpetual kind, in order to be successful in resolving it. It suggests that there is hope, that it isn’t the nature of the conflict or how much of it that’s present in our relationship which determines whether or not we can have successful conflict resolution. Rather, it’s how we do conflict and conflict resolution that determines whether or not we can be successful with it. Gottman suggests that no matter what the nature of the conflict we can work toward resolution of them when we choose to learn how to cope with them and then to avoid situations that worsen them.
Situations That Worsen Conflict (Notice when you are doing these and make the choice to stop!)
Gottman refers to the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which are dynamics that correlate with the breakdown in conflict resolution attempts. They are summarized below:
Criticism – a complaint that has gone global. An example: “Why are you always so forgetful?” Compare that to a complaint which is simply a concern that addresses a specific action. For example, “I’m angry that you didn’t put the dishes away last night because we agreed that Thursdays would be your night for doing this.” Criticism guaranteed to escalate the problem.
Contempt – a communication that suggests the other is worthy of disdain and disrespect. Sarcasm, cynicism, hostile humor, mockery and eye-rolling are classic communications of contempt toward another. Contempt is guaranteed to escalate the problem.
Defensiveness –a way of blaming your partner by suggesting the relationship problem is their fault, not yours. Defensiveness is guaranteed to escalate the problem.
Stonewalling – refusing to approach the conflict. Examples of stonewalling include refusals to actively discuss problems. The stonewalling partner may simply look away, bury their head in their cell phone (social media, news, games) or walk away while the other partner attempts to express concerns. Stonewalling is an outright refusal to acknowledge the other, which often results from being overwhelmed after a long period of the other three horseman being around. This can lead to a need to “check out”. Stonewalling is guaranteed to escalate the problem.
Conflict Resolution: The Elegant Compromise (a pleasingly inventive and simple agreement or understanding)
This definition of conflict resolution suggests a creative collaboration between both parties – you and your relationship partner. It invites you to come together to approach the problem in a new way with the simplicity of a shared goal – successful resolution of the problem. The work of developing the skills of elegant compromise doesn’t happen overnight. It takes steadfast willingness and effort to practice together over time. Below are some ideas of how to begin this process:
1. Make a conscious choice to embrace a win-win attitude in your attempts to resolve conflict. This means accepting that each of you will get some, but not all, of your needs met in the way that you want them met.
THE 4 HORSEMEN:
Criticism Contempt Defensiveness Stonewalling
2. Go inward to develop a greater understanding of your wants and needs. It’s important to have clarity before trying to assert these. Using the “compromise bagel” strategy (Gottman) can be helpful. a. Draw an oval on a piece of paper with a larger oval around the first one. b. Label the inner oval “Inflexible Area”. List in here needs that you have that you are not willing to compromise on; needs you can’t live without (e.g., wanting children, socializing). c. Label the outer oval “Flexible Area”. List in here needs that are negotiable. This doesn’t mean you have to compromise on the need itself, but rather that you are willing to be flexible with some of the specific aspects of the need, like timing, methods to achieve the goal.
3. Draw on your courage to respectfully assert your needs and desires (share your compromise bagel!): “Here’s what I want/need.”
4. Draw on your courage to respectfully and actively listen (remember the 4 Horsemen – they don’t belong here!) to what your partner needs and desires (learn about their compromise bagel!): “Tell me what you want/need.”
5. Be open to being influenced by your partner (true compromise cannot occur with a closed mind!).
6. Choose to be actively tolerant of your partner’s imperfections. (Actions speak louder than words.)
7. Accept that you and your partner may have different wants and needs. (Note: there are times when certain differences may be impossible to accept. For example if one partner wants children and the other simply doesn’t this may end in dissolution of the relationship. But the way this conflict is resolved can have lasting impact on future relationships so it is still important to apply the skills of healthy conflict resolution.)
8. Be willing to create a temporary compromise with the understanding that you will continue to work toward a more permanent resolution.
9. Seek guidance when needed.
As we start the new year, I invite you to embrace the paradigm of inevitable, approachable conflict and to try engaging in the art of the elegant compromise in your significant relationships!
Fran Bieganek is a Licensed Psychologist practicing holistic psychotherapy at Bhakti Wellness Center. She has been practicing for over 20 years and currently specializes in the areas of trauma, anxiety, depression, grief and loss, stress management, developmental transitions and well-being. She works with both individuals and couples. As part of her practice she also does qEEG brain mapping and neurofeedback. In addition to her therapy practice she has also taught Psychology courses at several colleges in Minnesota. She is currently accepting new clients and can be reached at 612-564-9947 or by emailing her at: email@example.com.