Conflict looks like it is the biggest problem in relationships, but according to Dr. John Gottman, the amount of conflict in a relationship doesn’t determine the success of a relationship. What is more important is the capacity for couples to repair the goodwill and rapport in their relationship after conflict.
So don’t beat yourself up if your relationship has conflict in it. Often, no conflict in a relationship is a sign of lack of intimacy. Instead of focusing on conflict, pay attention to your capacity to repair after conflict. Get good at making up! This also has the benefit of reducing the frequency and intensity of relationship conflict.
While there is no one size fits all strategy for making up, the first place to start is with yourself. When we get upset our nervous system gets activated. It is healthy for it to go into fight, flight, freeze, or faun mode. During this time your self-care is what is most important. Learning how to self-soothe is key and the first element for self-soothing is understanding that the physiological experience of upset is temporary. It will naturally move through your body as the neurochemicals dissipate in your system. What gets in the way of this happening is ruminating on the upset and the conflict.
Understanding the importance of leaving upsetting thoughts alone is key for your self-care. In order to reduce your suffering, you want to let your mind relax so your nervous system can stabilize. This simply means not focusing on the upsetting thoughts. They can be present, but allow them to move into the background. Distracting yourself from these thoughts is good. It is not irresponsible or akin to sweeping things under the rug. It is what your body and mind need in order for you to stabilize. This is about taking care of yourself. An unstable nervous system equals suffering. Self-care and self-soothing reduce this suffering.
Once your nervous system has settled down, you will not only feel better, you will have also regained perspective. You will feel at peace within yourself and be able to feel warmth toward your partner. This is when it is a good time to attempt to make up. When both parties have returned to balance they are then able to receive gestures of goodwill.
What is most important is that you are genuine in your feeling of warmth and desire to reconnect. Often couples will be uncomfortable with the distance between each other because of the fight and try to rush a makeup. They will say the right words in order to try and reconnect, but they are doing this as an attempt to make themselves feel better rather than actually being internally stabilized and ready. This tends to not go well. The feeling of emotional instability is felt behind the words. The genuine feelings of goodwill, warmth, humility, and kindness are not present even if the words are trying to convey those sentiments. We know when a makeup gesture is insincere. And it doesn't take long to find ourselves in conflict again when the attempts are premature.
Humility and sincerity are key for making up.
If you are genuinely feeling peace within yourself, your repair gesture has a much greater chance of being received and reciprocated. But there is no guarantee. Remember, if your attempt to make up is sincere and it is rebuffed, it does not mean anything about you or how much your partner cares about you. Rather, it is a reflection of your partner’s state of mind. They simply have not stabilized yet. Give them more time for their nervous system to settle and then try again or wait for your partner to demonstrate that they have settled and make their gesture of repair.
However, if you harbor resentment because your partner wasn't ready to make up when you were, that results in serial conflict and prolongs the experience of suffering and upset. It becomes make up ping pong. One partner makes a repair gesture. The other partner rejects it. The rejected partner gets upset and resentful. The other partner is now ready to make up, but the partner who was originally ready no longer is and rebuffs their partner's attempt to make up. That partner takes the rejection personally and so it goes back and forth. With each person harboring upset and suffering in the process.
Do your best to not take it personally if your partner isn't ready to make up. Get on with your life and give them the space and time they need. And if your partner is not able to let go of resentment for long periods of time, seek help with resolving the conflict. An outside perspective can be incredibly beneficial.
And when two people are able to find internal stability and feel warmth for each other, making up is easy. Apologies are accepted. There is an understanding of people's limitations. There is forgiveness for imperfections. There is a remembering of our partner's good qualities. We easily give people the benefit of the doubt. This allows for a greater connection between two people.
Once making up has taken hold, if there are next actions to take, this is the time to address them. When two people genuinely have open minds and open hearts finding solutions tends to be easy and feels like listening to common sense.
What looks irreconcilable when couples are emotionally unstable often becomes glaringly obvious for how to move forward when individuals are emotionally grounded and feeling at peace within themselves. And if the healthier choice is to move on from the relationship, this becomes clear in a settled state of mind and the decision can be trusted.
After a fight, focus on learning how to take care of yourself when you feel emotionally unstable. This is empowering and allows for the development of emotional resiliency. The by-product of this is it will build goodwill and resiliency in your relationship.
Conflict is inevitable in intimate relationships. Getting good at bouncing back from conflict strengthens relationships and brings couples closer together. Getting good at making up strengthens relationships.
Rohini Ross is co-founder of “The Rewilders.” Listen to her podcast, with her partner Angus Ross, Rewilding Love. They believe too many good relationships fall apart because couples give up thinking their relationship problems can’t be solved. In this season of the Rewilding Love Podcast, Rohini and Angus help a couple on the brink of divorce due to conflict. Angus and Rohini also co-facilitate private couples' intensives that rewild relationships back to their natural state of love. Rohini is also the author of the ebook Marriage, and she and Angus are co-founders of The 29-Day Rewilding Experience and The Rewilding Community. You can follow Rohini on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. To learn more about her work and subscribe to her blog visit: TheRewilders.org.