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Conflict is an inevitable component of human relationships but the critical emphasis lies not in the level of frequency, or why it occurs, but how conflict is understood and resolved. In order to achieve this we need to understand one another’s style of dealing with conflict. John and Julie Gottman (1999) describe three styles by which partners can understand conflict and resolve problems within their relationships.
The validating style within relationships involves regular compromise, a desire and an ability to identify and incorporate your partner’s point of view into the decision making process. It involves accommodating your own viewpoint with that of your partner. An example of a validating style would be as follows:
“When my partner expresses a valid position within arguments, I immediately acknowledge that and cooperate to find a solution.”
This volatile style entails meeting the issue head-on vocally and emotionally, erupting into conflict, which frequently evolve into passionate disputes. Volatile couples exude a variety of behavioural traits such as humour, teasing and strong persuasion in arguments. An example of a volatile approach might be:
“In arguments I’m outspoken and firm in pursuing my goals so that I get my point across.”
Conflict avoidant couples agree to disagree on most issues and frequently seek to minimise the importance of the conflict or problem. They moderate highly charged viewpoints so that they achieve togetherness and unity for the betterment of the relationship. An example of a conflict avoidant approach might be:
“I frequently avoid contentious issues within our relationship as the differences between us are really not worth fighting about.”
Conflict Between Styles
Couples need to be more vigilant in their approach to conflict when the two partners have a different style of conflict resolution. This frequently occurs when one person’s demands for change within the relationship are met by their partner’s need to withdraw. In this context ‘demand’ is frequently interpreted as criticism while ‘withdrawal’ is seen as denial and avoidance. This demand-withdrawal behavioural pattern has particular relevance for some combinations within conflict resolution styles. Within this scenario the avoidant and volatile are most at risk as the avoidant person thinks he/she is living with an irrational person while the volatile person feels his/her partner is unloving, cold and distant. Reflecting on the same scenario between volatile and validator, the validator may feel she/he is not taken seriously or listened to while the volatile partner feels there is no magic or passion in the relationship. Within the avoidant / volatile combination the avoidant partner may feel relentlessly pursued and swamped while the volatile partner may feel emotionally blocked out.
Avoiding Demand and Withdrawal
Many couples overcome the demand-withdrawal trap in conflict by taking the time to think clearly why they are upset, communicate it without accusation or personal attack, and listen respectfully to the viewpoint of their partner.
Reflect on how conflict is handled within your relationship! Can you identify your own style of conflict resolution? Can you identify your partner’s style? Discuss this exercise with your partner so that you understand one another’s style of conflict resolution!