Be Softer And Gentler For Relationship-Marriage Success

What erodes the wonderful deep feelings of profound romantic love as you live with someone every day for years?

Too much bickering, too many arguments, and fighting—all are emotionally corrosive! Hurt feelings build up and harden into an underlying resentment, which can begin to chip away at wonderful feelings of being “in love.” The problem is no one teaches us how to deal with the inevitability of conflict or how to deal with it in love relationships. Even though we have a serious social problem reflected by our 50% divorce rate—still there is no education.

Society’s Failure In Relationship Education

What happens is that people fly solo straight into relationships with no navigational instruments to stay on course. Few, if any, relationship skills are taught to protect us from the harmful effects of conflict.

While society fails to educate us, interestingly there is overwhelming scientific research pointing exactly to how we can reduce conflict in love relationships. Noted marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman has identified all of the following as harmful ways of interacting that lead to poor outcomes and further escalation of conflicts:

  • Initiating a discussion with a “harsh startup” marked by criticism, sarcasm, or contempt
  • Sustained negativity in the form of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (withdrawal/shutting down from interaction)
  • Angry, accusatory expressions in general foster more conflict

In general, this research shows that the more aggressive arguments are, the more potentially damaging to the relationship. And the solution is to use “softening” in handling conflict, for example start off discussion using soothing interactions and avoid aggressive behaviors during difficult discussions.

The Biggest Relationship Challenge

All of us can easily fall into using any of the above negative, aggressive behaviors in communicating about hot issues. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to stop ourselves! In fact, this one of the biggest obstacles couples face in marriage therapy—how to stop patterns of repeating conflict.

After working with couples for over 28 years and seeing how difficult and slow moving couples were in showing real change, I developed a new approach in 2010 to help couples—Relationship Co-Coaching. Since that time I’ve seen couples make remarkable changes. One of the key change ingredients is the Softly Specific technique for resolving conflict. When I looked back at all the conflict I’ve seen in the first 28 years of doing marriage therapy the realization suddenly came to me that there are only two primary causes for all conflict:

  1. Use of aggressive voice tone, words, or body language
  2. Negative generalizations about one’s partner

A verbally aggressive tone doesn’t have to be a loud, angry voice. More often it’s simply accusatory or blaming. No one teaches us that any aggressiveness or edge in voice tone naturally causes defensiveness in another person due to an automatic self-protective response.

The exact same thing happens when using negative generalizations such as “you never help out around the house.” Combine negative generalizations with aggressive voice tone or words and it’s practically impossible to stop conflict. After this insight about the two chief reasons for all conflict the solution became clear to me—eliminate these two behaviors!

Be Softly Specific To Resolve Conflict

The Softly Specific method eliminates these two highly charged conflict-producing behaviors and utilizes the scientific principle of “softening.” It calls for partners to be:

  • Soft rather than aggressive in voice tone/words and
  • Specific rather making generalizations.

One of the key elements to Softly Specific is learning to “emotionally downshift” from anger to the deeper, more vulnerable feelings like hurt, rejection, sadness, or fear. Leading off a conversation with “I feel hurt when you say or do XYZ” further “softens” and helps reduce defensiveness. Marriage researchers Dr. Andrew Christiansen and Dr. Neil Jacobson also support the idea of using “soft disclosures” of vulnerable feelings rather than “hard disclosures” of angry, accusatory expressions.

You Can Reduce Conflict

Teaching couples in my practice how to be Softly Specific has helped them make huge inroads in taking control and reducing conflict—it can also help you. Keep in mind it’s a discipline and takes repeated practice. Don’t become discouraged! Remember: being softer, less aggressive, and sharing vulnerable emotions helps reduce conflict and inspires warm, loving feelings!


Original Publication:

Be Softer and Gentler For Relationship-Marriage Success: Timothy J. McCarthy, PhD, LP, LMFT, New Living Magazine, May 2016


Be Softer And Gentler For Relationship-Marriage Success
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