Archive for June, 2010

Conflict Management: Four Parts

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

There are four basic parts to good conflict management. This post provides a very brief overview of these four parts. The Couple Conflict Consultant provides an extensive bank of information for each of the areas listed below.

The first part of conflict management is being able to identify underlying concerns. When couples have conflict, underlying concerns are the real reason they feel upset. The concern is the fuel that keeps their conflict burning. This means that, if they resolve the underlying concern, they will have resolved the conflict. More often than not, couples are unaware of their true underlying concerns, and this makes it extremely difficult to resolve conflict. When you have conflict, do you know what your primary underlying concerns are?

My research has found that most conflicts boil down to only one of two basic underlying concerns. These concerns are called perceived threat and perceived neglect. A perceived threat is when you think that your partner is criticizing you, or blaming you, or trying to control you. A perceived neglect is when you think that your partner not showing enough commitment, or is failing to make a desired contribution to your relationship. To resolve conflict, couples need to be aware of their concerns and they need to find a tactful way to express them.

The second part to conflict resolution is being able to manage your emotions so that your emotions help your reach your goals. My research has identified three types of emotion that are especially common during conflict. I call them hard emotion (feeling angry) soft emotion (feeling sad) and flat emotion (feeling bored). During a conflict, each emotion motivates you to take a different course of action, and each emotion communicates a different message to your partner. It is easiest to resolve conflict, then, when you experience the best emotion for reaching your goals in a given situation. To do this, you need to be aware of your emotions and you need to be clear about your goals. Importantly, the point here is NOT to eliminate emotion. Indeed, humans are emotional creatures. This means it would be both unrealistic and foolish to ignore your emotions. Rather, the thing to do is to manage your emotions so they work for you rather than against you.

The third part to conflict resolution involves communication. To resolve conflict, couples need to express thoughts and ideas tactfully, and to carefully listen and understand what the other has to say. I call this type of communication collaborative engagement. In contrast to collaborative engagement, there are three types of communication that often add heat to conflict interactions. The most common is called adversarial engagement, where couples are critical, blaming, attacking, and defensive. The final two types of communication include retreat, where couples try to avoid conflict, and passive engagement, where couples use an indirect communication to address a conflict. It is important to note that it is normal for couples to use all four of these types of communication. Even the happiest couples use adversarial engagement from time to time. Moreover, each type of communication may have a time and a place where it is appropriate. On some occasions, passive engagement may be the best option. At the same time, if couples want to resolve a conflict, at some point, they will likely need to begin using collaborative engagement. Without collaborative engagement, conflicts are unlikely to reach a satisfying resolution.

The fourth part has to do with the thoughts couples have during conflict. When you have conflict, you are likely to have many thoughts running through your mind. There are three types of thoughts that are especially important. The first is called negative attributions. These include thoughts where you blame your partner for causing a conflict. The second is called negative expectancies. These are where you make a prediction that your partner will do something bad in the future. The third is called partner understanding. This is a positive type of thought where you see things from your partner’s perspective. All three of these types of thoughts can have a powerful force in determining the course of a conflict. So, it is important to be aware of your thoughts, to evaluate your thoughts, and to change your thoughts when you want to do so.

As you can see, there are several important parts to conflict resolution. It takes a substantial investment of time and effort for couples to learn about each of these areas, and to develop skills in each of these areas. But then, things that are worthwhile rarely come easily.

Marital Advice

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

What is the best advice for married couples? What do couples need to do to make their relationships strong? I answer these questions from the point of view of a clinical research psychologist, having conducting more than 20 years of studies with thousands of married couples. In contrast to many popular books on relationships that are currently available, my advice is not “one-size-fits-all.” Relationships are complex, and every couple is unique. This means that good advice for one couple may be bad advice for another. To give good advice to married couples, I need to ask them three basic questions.

Question 1: Is your relationship mostly satisfying, or is it currently distressed?

At one point or another, well over half of all relationships go through a stormy season of distress. If you are happy with your partner, then realize you have something precious and take good care of it. If you are experiencing some distress, the first step is to determine whether you are experiencing a major relationship trauma. Major traumas includes things like: (1) problems with alcohol or other drugs, (2) physical violence in the home, (3) one partner no longer wants to stay in the relationship, (4) an affair, and (5) problems with clinical depression. These types of traumas demand immediate attention, and they need to be addressed (possibly with professional help) before a couple can make progress in other areas of their relationship. Of course, couples can become distressed without a major trauma. The good news, here, is that when couples make a commitment to work together on their relationship, and if they stick with it for a sufficient period of time, it is relatively common for unhappy relationships to recover.

Question 2: What do you do to make things good in your relationship?

Most relationships are naturally exciting when they first begin. If a couple wants to maintain a lifelong partnership, however, each partner needs to take responsibility to do things that make the relationship strong and healthy. These are the things you do, and the contributions you make, to keep your relationship fun and rewarding for both you and your partner. This takes work, and will not always come naturally. In addition, it requires negotiation. The things that are important for one person may not be important for another, and each couple needs to decide for themselves what they value most. Are you intentionally doing things that make your relationship good for both you and your partner? If yes, then keep up the good work. If, however, your efforts do not seem to be paying off, or if you are not sure what to do, then my advice is to discuss these issues with your partner. Or, if you are simply not making a sincere effort in this area, it would be good to figure out why. Often, couples lose motivation to work on their relationship when they have problems with an unresolved conflict. In this case, an important piece of the equation is to develop better conflict management skills. This leads us to the third question.

Question 3: Are you using conflict as a tool to make your relationship better?

Notice that this third question is not asking whether you have conflict in your relationship. Indeed, all relationships experience conflict from time to time. What is important, then, is not how much conflict you have, but rather, how you manage the conflict you do have. Conflict is actually essential for producing intimacy in a relationship – without it, a relationship would be dry and shallow. When a conflict is resolved well, it brings two partners closer together, it results in a deeper, shared understanding between them, and it produces mutual respect and appreciation. Unfortunately, when conflict is not managed well, it can tear a relationship apart. So, what does it take to manage conflict?

There are four basic parts to good conflict management. These include (1) being aware of your true underlying concerns during conflict, (2) managing emotion, (3) using good communication, and (4) monitoring your thoughts. If you are not familiar with these four basic parts of conflict management, the first step is to learn about them.

Also, when you have conflict, it is important to get feedback on how you are doing in each area. The same thing would be true for an athlete in training for an important sports event. Several different skills are needed to become an outstanding athlete, and an athlete needs continual feedback from a coach to develop these skills. Each athlete may have different strengths and weaknesses. A coach helps the athlete know what is working well, and where he or she needs improvement. In this way, the athlete can create an individualized training program that capitalizes on strengths, builds up weaknesses, and produces the best results possible. The same thing is true for developing good conflict resolution skills. Couples develop the best skills if they get feedback on how they are doing in each area. In this way, they can create an individualize plan on were to focus their efforts. Just like an athlete in training, results do not happen overnight. It takes time to build outstanding conflict resolution skills. It is possible to become highly effective at resolving conflicts with your partner, but this requires getting repeated feedback over a long period of time, and it requires making a long-term effort toward honing and refining your skills. For couples that invest this effort, the payoff can be great. These couples are able to resolve their conflicts, and this leads to greater intimacy, better communication, and a stronger relationship.

Additional resources

See the post: Four Areas of Conflict Resolution

The Couple Conflict Consultant provides a large resource bank of information on conflict resolution, and it offers thorough, scientifically-based assessments and feedback. You can learn more about the areas of conflict resolution, assess your skills, develop an individualized plan, and track your progress over time. Everything is provided entirely free of charge as part of my research program. If you have not yet tried it, all you need is an e-mail address to begin.

New Blog

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

This is the first post for the new blog.

More entries will follow soon. is the home of the Couple Conflict Consultant, a free program, based on scientific research, that helps couples build strong skills in communication and conflict resolution.