Managing Conflict in Relationships

Dear Elana, 

I love my boyfriend, but whenever there's an issue he walks away from it. My instinct is to talk about it and figure it out, but he refuses. He'll get “busy” and then when he comes home he changes the subject. When I brought this to his attention he told me to “let go” and not to “overreact.” After a few days, things usually simmer down and go back to normal, but I wish we could air our concerns and talk about how to solve problems together. 

- Lost In Non-Communicative Dating Arrangement


Couples often find their way to my office looking for help with similar concerns. A common example is when the husband is sitting down to watch a Browns game and his wife interrupts with a request to talk about their relationship. Instead of engaging in the conversation, he turns up the volume. Fuming, she makes dinner and silently goes to sleep. 

In these cases I summon the work of Dr. John Gottman, a renowned psychologist who studies relationships in Seattle. According to Dr. Gottman, conflict is a normal and healthy part of a relationship. The way a couple handles conflict is what matters. For example, if one partner wants to process their frustration, and the other wants to hold it in, minor annoyances can escalate into heated arguments. In contrast, if both partners agree about how to express their feelings, they are able to diffuse tensions more quickly. 

It sounds like your boyfriend is falling into one of Dr. Gottman's relationship traps called Stonewalling. Stonewalling is when one partner shuts down and withdraws from an interaction. If you continue pressing him, he is likely to erupt in anger or further shut down because his nervous system is in overdrive. The solution is to recognize that your boyfriend is sensitive to conflict, and he needs time to calm down before he is ready to engage. In Dr. Gottman's research, couples who take a break to self-soothe before talking about their concerns had lower heart rates and were able to problem-solve more constructively. So, the next time you see the sink piled high with dishes, take a break to read or go for a walk before reminding your sweetheart where he can find the sponges.