If you’re in a committed relationship and never argue with your partner, well, congratulations, you magnificent Love Unicorn. For the rest of us, knowing how to navigate conflict effectively, respectfully, and productively is crucial for long-term relationship health because arguments are pretty inevitable. And there’s certainly more than one way to go about that: As the Gottman Institute pointed out in a recent Instagram, there are five different types of couples when it comes to argument style, and knowing yours is important for learning how you and your partner can be most successful in navigating conflict.
First are Conflict Avoiders, who tend to highlight what they agree on and minimize areas of conflict. In a relationship, they operate independently and autonomously, and they’re not super emotionally expressive. On the opposite end are Volatile Couples. Though their moniker implies animosity, they actually enjoy the thrill of a debate, and they engage in a passionate conversation that is decidedly not full of contempt. Then there are Validating Couples who approach conflict with gentleness and empathy. When they disagree, the issue usually comes about when one party relents. The last two different types of couples are Hostile, who defensively take each other’s criticisms as personal attacks, and Hostile-Detached, who turn every possible situation into a tumultuous argument wherein the result is a quiet, lonely lack of any resolution.
Regardless of which of these different types of couples best describes you and your partner, though, all people could learn to argue a little better and strengthen their relationship in the process. Below, Debra Roberts, LCSW, relationship therapist and author of The Relationship Protocol: How to Talk, Defuse, and Build Healthier Relationships, shares her biggest communication-strengthening tip for each of the different types of couples.
How each of the 5 different types of couples can communicate better to handle conflict.
These couples are minimalists when it comes to communication. They don’t tend to rock the boat with nit-picking…and that tends to work for them. They’re willing to overlook issues that can lead to arguments or vulnerability, which is fine as long as both parties are authentically okay with that. But, if you do feel you have a problem with something your partner is doing, speaking out about it is essential.
“They can say, ‘When you have a few minutes, I’d like to talk to you about a problem I’m having with working from home. It would mean a lot to me,’” says Roberts. “When they state their intentions upfront, it sets the stage for a positive outcome because it lets their partner know they want to talk about something that is important to them.”
These couples are super-candid about their emotions, which makes for minimal boundaries and pretty open communication. They have lively, playful debates (and probably some stellar banter), and generally get on quite nicely. That said, the lack of boundaries can get tricky sometimes, and their debates can lead to someone being upset.
“Pay attention to the other person while speaking to notice when or if the conversation switches from a lively debate to hurt feelings,” Roberts says. “If they observe the shift, they can stop whatever they are saying and respectfully attend to the other person’s reaction. Because at that moment, their partner’s hurt feelings need to be the priority, not continuing the back and forth.”
These couples tend to address their issues and also have an overall healthy relationship. But there’s always room for improvement, and the continued power-struggle aspect can become problematic. According to Roberts, a successful relationship occurs when we’re less focused on winning and more interested in understanding each other’s perspective.
“A word of advice would be for each partner to bring extra self-awareness to their interactions,” Roberts says. “If they observe themselves during the interaction and realize that they are acting competitively or entering a power struggle, they can choose to respond differently.”
If you find that you and your partner are arguing in a hostile way, first agree on a mutually respected list of banned phrases. Absolutes like “you never” and “you always” can shut down the other person and cloud your original message in the process.
“If instead of speaking in absolutes, they use words such as, ‘it seems,’ or ‘I think,’ it can make a big difference in engaging the other person in the interaction,” says Dr. Roberts. “Also, if they notice they are feeling defensive, a great tip is to take a breath, and then ask a question about the topic. Asking a question buys them time to think about a better response, and they can learn what the other person meant by their comment.”
The trickiness with a Hostile-Detached relationship is that neither person cares enough to change, knows how to change, or even thinks change is even possible. This can keep them stuck in a toxic cycle, where both parties are too invested in maintaining their position. “[They] behave as if they don’t care about the other person’s pain or the effect their behavior is having on the relationship,” says Roberts. “Since both partners are not acting in committed ways, most likely, they do not feel emotionally safe in the relationship. They’re in battle mode.”
But if you believe this person is worth fighting for (and not just fighting with), there’s still hope. The first step is being brave enough to wave the white flag. “It can happen if one or both consciously decides not to engage in the battle any longer,” Roberts says. “They do this for the sake of the relationship, their family, their mental health, and so on. It’s a bold move, yet, if they are consistent and kind, they can create or at least attempt to initiate some positive change.”
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