February 13, 2023

Q&A with Dr. Stephanie Taylor: How To Identify and Manage Conflict in Relationships [PART 2 of 3]

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We sat down with one of UCEBT's couples specialists, Dr. Stephanie Taylor, to ask about conflict in relationships. What's it all about? Why is it important? How can it be managed? Read along in part 2 of this three part series to see what Dr. Taylor says about the role of conflict in relationships.

Is the goal just to eliminate negativity?

The goal in therapy with our couples is not to eliminate the negativity. It's tempting to declare war on negativity, but negativity can be very productive in relationships. Those are the things that sort of highlight stuff that doesn't work for a partner. It can be very informative. You hurt your partner's feelings; you learn something. You talk about how to do that better next time. 

The goal here is not to have a relationship where there isn't any negativity because one, that's an impossible goal setting up for failure. And two, it's the negativity that counts. We just want to make it less. We want to make it more manageable, and we want to make it a bit more constructive. 

Think about that cycle within relationships: you have a disagreement that creates temporary distance and then when you're able to repair things, that brings the partners back together in a meaningful way. So there is a lot of growth in this cycle or this process that typically happens with this dance that partners get into.

As long as it's handled with softness, with some grace, you don't want to get rid of the anger or the sadness. We want to look at all emotions as helpful. 

So what exactly is “negativity” in relationships?

Gottman was curious if all negative aspects are created equally. And the answer is no. There are some negative pieces that are much more corrosive and damaging to relationships. 

In fact, they found four types of negativity, especially present in those couples that were headed towards divorce. And they really do tend to show up a lot when a couple is in conflict. 

With these four pieces, they found that successful couples who are able to have a problem, are able to separate that problem from themselves and from the relationship. And if anything, it becomes its own entity. This problem is almost a threat to the relationship as a whole. The unsuccessful couples are not able to separate that.

#1. Criticism

You can kind of think of criticism as a way of complaining that suggests there is something wrong with your partner. Your partner is defective in some way and there is a constructive way to complain in relationships and it does not involve criticism. 

Successful partners, they're still complaining, but they're talking about themselves, what they need, they're not attacking. So, for example, you have a partner that comes home and you've spent all afternoon cleaning and the partner didn't notice. So you say something like, “Hello, look at all this work that I did. You didn't even notice. I need some kind of acknowledgement. Otherwise, I end up feeling pretty underappreciated.” So that's me talking about myself, what I feel, what I need. 

Criticism, on the other hand, would be: “You come home from work, you look around, you don't say anything about what I've been doing all afternoon. What is wrong with you?” Any time you're hearing that, what is wrong with you statement, that is the epitome of criticism. It's basically pointing out a symptom of your partner's defect. So we want to stay away from that. 

#2. Defensiveness

If you feel like you're being attacked, you're going to want to kind of ward off that attack and you're going to get a little bit defensive. And what they found is there are two types of defensiveness behaviors: There's righteous indignation and innocent victim. 

Righteous indignation would be attacking back. You meet a complaint with a counter complaint. “Well, you didn't notice that time. I cleaned the house all afternoon three and a half months ago.” 

The innocent victim would be a little bit more like a whining approach: “I did notice. I thought it was obvious. I appreciated it.” 

How do partners in successful relationships handle criticism or complaints?

The alternative to defensiveness is listening and accepting responsibility. And I think this last piece might be particularly challenging. Accepting responsibility is not necessarily saying “I'm wrong. You're right.” You can accept responsibility over something very small; that can go a long way in a partnership. So, for example, the partner comes home and says, “You know, you're right. I was in my head over things that were happening at work. I was not paying attention to the house when I walked in. I absolutely appreciate the time you spent cleaning.” 

Read on for Part 3 of 3 on the role of conflict in relationships.