We’ve all heard of conflict in marriages; it’s an inevitable part of long-term relationships. But what about conflict in dating relationships—relationships that haven’t lasted as long, aren’t yet as serious, or at least haven’t made the promise of forever yet? What is the role of conflict in these relationships? Dating couples sometimes embrace a false dilemma about conflict in dating relationships, either avoiding it altogether or seeing it as a sign that it’s time to break up. In both cases, the couple fails to practice healthy conflict resolution. The way conflict is handled may justify the end of a dating relationship, but often there is a happy medium between these two extremes. It’s important to see healthy conflict as a normal part of any long-term relationship, and to learn to deal with it in order to have a successful marriage.
You’ve been dating a guy for a while, and as you’ve gotten to know each other better, you have started to see a new side of him. Maybe he gets angry about politics or when venting about his job. Even though his anger is not directed toward you, it scares you nonetheless, especially when you think about the future and the possibility of raising kids together. Maybe he regularly tunes you out or isn't actively engaged every time you're telling a story, and this bothers you. Where do you go from here? Without the experience of handling conflict, many of us tend to either sweep such incidents under the rug or end the relationship. For women who are conflict-avoidant, who avoid addressing a potential problem or stating their own opinion in order to keep those around them comfortable, choosing one of these extremes may be a tempting response. But in doing so they not only sacrifice their needs and often their happiness, but also the health of the relationship, by forgoing the opportunity to build crucial conflict-resolution skills. It’s no wonder that so many people enter marriages unsure how to navigate healthy conflict resolution when it was never put into practice in their dating relationships.
Sure, there are times when either of these routes are acceptable, and even encouraged. Bringing up every gripe can become nagging, so at times it is best to pick your battles. On the other hand, there are real red flags such as emotional or physical abuse that certainly warrant an end to the relationship. But in general, forcing a choice between a so-called peaceful relationship or no relationship is a false dichotomy; a happy and healthy medium of conflict does exist. If two people—different human beings, with disparate points of view and experiences—are to spend their lives together, some conflict is to be expected. Learning how to handle conflict in a healthy way is vital to a happy marriage, and an important personal skill, regardless of relationship status.
The happy medium
Especially if you have only recently begun dating someone, broaching the unknown territory of conflict and conflict resolution can be flat-out scary. It makes sense that so many would rather just side-step the conversation than brave the uncharted waters of conflict. But conflict is an opportunity for growth not only because it allows skill-building for both partners, but also because repairing a temporary rupture in the relationship leaves the relationship better off than it was before. A relationship is actually stronger after conflict is handled well than before that conflict came up. If that doesn’t make a case for learning healthy conflict resolution, I don’t know what does.
So what does healthy conflict look like in a dating relationship? Dr. John Gottman has studied couples’ interactions for decades. From them he can predict divorce in married couples with over 90 percent accuracy. His research has shown that the key to flourishing relationships is handling conflict successfully. He does not equate successful conflict management with conflict resolution. In fact, his research has shown that 69 percent of couples’ relationship problems are actually unsolvable (such as differences in personality traits or issues with one another’s family). Thus, the key to healthy conflict isn’t the resolution in itself, but how the conflict is managed.
The first step to healthy conflict management is how you approach the issue. Gottman calls this step a “soft start-up.” A soft start-up means that one broaches the conversation calmly, without name-calling, yelling, sarcasm, or criticism (which are markers of a “harsh start-up”). A soft start-up might sound something like, “Hey Mike, I wanted to talk to you about your reaction to the news yesterday . . .” instead of, “What on earth were you thinking acting that way in front of my parents?!” This may sound like a no-brainer, but in the heat of the moment, sometimes rational thought goes out the window. Soft start-ups lessen the likelihood of putting your partner on the defense and decrease the possibility that either of you will get upset.
Rational thought is abandoned when things get heated, which can happen quickly as an argument escalates, or if you feel hurt or angry about the issue you are about to bring up with your partner. In such moments, it is important to be able to self-soothe. That is, you need to be able to notice that you are feeling angry or upset and calm yourself down. Maybe your heart has started racing, you’re clenching your jaw, or your chest tightens. Whatever your physical signal is, these are usually indicators that the conversation may be heading for a downward spiral if you can’t practice self-soothing. Whether you’re inclined to withdraw (avoid) or attack (get angry) in such instances, neither leads to productive conflict management. Instead, take a warm shower before broaching the topic if it’s getting you heated just thinking about it. If you’ve already started the conversation, take several deep belly breaths before speaking to your partner, so you can respond rationally.
You can also talk to your partner about having “time-outs” during conflicts, and discuss the stipulations for doing so—such as reconvening the discussion in a calmer state after 20 minutes. For example, if one of you realizes you are getting too emotionally heated, and so the conversation will not be productive at this point, you can call a timeout, and both take 20 minutes in separate rooms to calm yourselves (with a shower, taking deep breaths, etc). After this time, you come back together much calmer and continue the conversation in a more productive manner. (The time-out approach is different than withdrawing or conflict avoidance because it is a momentary break—the key is to continue the conversation after a predetermined amount of time.)
Another important part of healthy conflict is your body language and tone of voice, which Gottman calls a “positive affect.” It might sound counterintuitive, but it is actually crucial if you want to have a productive conversation. A smile, gently holding hands, or even just looking your partner in the eye when you are talking and keeping your body turned towards him are subtle but vital ways of saying that you care about him amidst this difficult discussion or argument. These physical signals also help keep you and your partner from becoming defensive and allow you to actually listen to each other. Turning away physically, rolling your eyes, furrowing your brows, or speaking in a contemptuous tone convey the opposite. These are a sure way to put your partner on the defensive and make you both feel worse coming away from this conflict.
This one is extremely important to keeping you and your partner from becoming defensive, yet it’s the aspect of conflict management I see couples struggle with the most in my work as a marriage and family therapist. After your soft start-up from earlier, you can follow with, “I felt embarrassed and scared when you got angry about the news in front of my parents because . . .” To keep from finger-pointing, think through how you felt and explain your feelings to your partner without placing the emphasis on his behavior—keep it focused on why you felt this way. It may sound simple but in the heat of the moment couples often use it incorrectly: “I hate that you got angry . . .” In this example, the speaker did not actually state her own feelings but simply criticized her partner. Stick to I-statements in the format of “I feel [emotion] when you [action] because . . .” to avoid finger pointing.
Actual red flags
Of course, there are actual red flags in a partner’s behavior that merit a breakup. These include how your partner responds when you bring up concerns (such as the aforementioned ones regarding his behavior). If a partner becomes extremely defensive and volatile when he hears your concerns, be wary. Gottman cites contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling (when the listener stops responding to his partner) as four behaviors that are very dangerous to relationships; in fact, his research shows he can predict a relationship ending when these behaviors are present. It’s also worth reiterating that emotional or physical abuse are never okay, and certainly warrant the end of a relationship.
If, however, your partner is able to listen to your concerns about his behavior or your relationship, this is a hopeful sign. He may get defensive at first (many of us do when we sense we are being criticized—which is why your approach matters), but if he can hear you out and, in the end, recognize that he needs to change his behavior, this is a good start. His initial behaviors may not be reason for a break-up if he can recognize the need for change, is willing to change, and is actually capable of doing so (over time). If, however, the concerning behaviors don’t modify over time, despite your partner promising time and again that they will, or if your partner does not seem willing to heed reasonable requests, these may be signs that the relationship needs to end.
Remember that concerns that come up most of the time during dating don’t have to be all-or-nothing. With the right approach, even the most conflict-avoidant person can feel confident bringing them up with her partner. Every time you practice healthy conflict management, you will be utilizing one of the most important skills anyone can bring to a relationship. Whether this dating relationship goes the distance or not, your marriage down the road will be better off for the relational work you put in throughout all your dating relationships.