The C word – Can you say it?

This week our blog comes from the talented team at the Gottman Institute. For those of you not familiar, Professor John Gottman is the world Leader in couple and relationship therapy.

We’ve all been there: in the middle of a fight we know we can’t win, aware that our frustration has overwhelmed all sense of perspective, yet utterly unable to stop. In this moment, it may help to remember the old saying: It is better to bend than to break! This is just what Dr. Gottman’s research has shown.

When we’re caught in the heat of an argument, we’re in a state of crisis. Crisis, from the Greek crisis, is defined as “a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger.” In this moment, what we yearn for most is to feel safe.

Gottmann’s studies have produced evidence for what we intuitively know: Without a feeling of emotional and physical safety, there is no way for us to reach a state of compromise with another.  His studies have also yielded evidence for something counter-intuitive. If your goal is to reach a state of compromise, you must first focus on yourself. To reach compromise, you must define your core needs, refuse to relinquish anything that you feel is absolutely essential, and be willing to accept influence.

Dr Gottmann’s advice, based on years of research, is the following: 

Remember, you can only be influential if you accept influence. Compromise never feels perfect. Everyone gains something and everyone loses something… the important things are feeling understood, respected, and honoured in your dreams.

If you feel like this is an incredibly tall order, you are not alone! The following exercise may be of comfort. This activity will help you and your partner to make headway into the perpetually gridlocked problems creating conflict and stress in your relationship.

Exercise: The Art of Compromise

Step 1: Consider an area of conflict in which you and your partner have been stuck in perpetual gridlock. Draw two ovals, one within the other. The one on the inside is your Inflexible Area, and the one on the outside is your Flexible Area.

Step 2: Think of the inside oval containing the ideas, needs, and values you absolutely cannot compromise on, and the outside oval containing the ideas, needs, and values that you feel more flexible with in this area. Make two lists.

Step 3: Discuss the following questions with your partner, in the way that feels most comfortable and natural for the two of you. Make sure that you really listen to each other in discussing your core needs:

  • Can you help me to understand why your “inflexible” needs or values are so important to you?
  • What are your guiding feelings here?
  • What feelings and goals do we have in common? How might these goals be accomplished?
  • Help me to understand your flexible areas. Let’s see which ones we have in common.
  • How can I help you to meet your core needs?
  • What temporary compromise can we reach on this problem?

Note: This exercise should not be approached in the midst of a stressful discussion. It will be most helpful if undertaken in peace-time, perhaps in the evening or on a weekend with no distractions (give the kids something to do or hire a sitter, leave the phones in another room, etc.). It should take you and your partner approximately thirty minutes. 

Remember, this activity is not a magical pill that can be popped, making all of your problems disappear forever. Instead, it is likely to be the beginning of a long series of honest, fruitful, and fulfilling discussions!

If it still feels intimidating, don’t be discouraged; it probably means that this is very important to you. Those of us who love someone have a real gift, and this caring is our greatest power – allowing us to see the loved one’s unique beauty, providing us with the motivation to overcome challenges together, and energizing us as we build bridges and walk over them.

We leave you with the wise words of Virginia Woolf: “You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”


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