I spoke to 4 couples in which both partners are relationship experts - and everyone recommended the same strategy for managing conflict

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man kissing woman outsideKonstantin2017/ShutterstockIt's the opposite of getting defensive.

  • I recently spoke to several married couples in which both partners are relationship experts. I asked how they managed conflict.
  • Everyone said they tried to stay curious about their partner, instead of getting angry or defensive.
  • Curiosity is a notoriously hard skill to develop, but it pays off.


I recently spoke to a series of married couples in which both partners are relationship experts.

When I asked how they coped with friction in their marriages, everyone had a similar response: They stay curious.

Peter Pearson, PhD said it's a skill that's notoriously hard, even for people who are trained in couples therapy, as he and his wife, Ellyn Bader, PhD, are. Together, Pearson and Bader run the Couples Institute in Menlo Park, California.

Pearson shared an example of how curiosity might work in his relationship. He and Bader have long had different levels of tolerance for clutter.

When they first recognized this discrepancy, Pearson said, Bader might have asked her husband questions like, "When does clutter cross your threshold of unacceptability?", "In your family of origin, how did they deal with clutter?", "How much effort would it take from you, Pete, to become more conscious of clutter and do something about it?", and "What could I, Ellyn, do to support you in being more conscious of clutter and doing something about it?"

The question that would have gotten them nowhere: "Why are you such a slob?"

Other couples explained how curiosity can replace anger or hostility.

Carrie Cole, MEd, LPC, and Don Cole, DMin, LPC-S, LMFT-S, who are the research director and clinical director, respectively, at the Gottman Institute, shared a recent example. Carrie was visibly upset with Don because she'd asked him a question and he'd blown her off. Instead of getting defensive, Carrie said, Don got curious.

He asked questions like, "Why did that bother you so badly?" and was willing to listen to the answer. Carrie told me it's about feeling validated. "For somebody to say, 'Tell me more about that' and 'Where does that come from for you? What's your history around that?' That really soothes me."

Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD, president at the Gottman Institute, said her husband and cofounder at the Gottman Institute, John Gottman, PhD, adopted a relationship-strengthening strategy directly from their own research early on in their marriage.

"If I was really upset about something or making a complaint about a behavior of his," she said, "rather than going defensive, he would say, 'What do you need? Honey, what do you need?' And immediately all the tension would met away. The anger would melt away. It was a balm to my soul."

Why? "Because John recognized that when I was upset about something, first of all my feelings were valid," she said. "He loved me and my feelings mattered," plus he showed a willingness to help ease her distress.

Try to be open and patient the way you were in the early stages of dating

My favorite take on the role that curiosity plays in a relationship came from Suzanne Pileggi Pawelski, who, along with her husband, James Pawelski, PhD, wrote the forthcoming book, "Happy Together."

While drafting the book, Pileggi Pawelski and Pawelski realized they had very different approaches to research and writing. Pileggi Pawelski told me it was helpful to take a step back instead of becoming infuriated when her husband analyzed and deliberated over decisions she would have made much more quickly. That allowed her to remember that Pawelski was "trying to make a better project for the two of us."

Pileggi Pawelski said that in the beginning of a relationship, "You ask a lot of questions and then later you get into a relationship with someone and you assume you know them." At that point, you're "just not as open as in the initial phases. For whatever reason, we all fall into a pattern."

The antidote, it would seem, is mindfulness. You want to be aware that you don't always know what your partner is thinking, or what motivates them to act the way they do. Instead of leaping to conclusions, and then to anger, ask questions and be willing to listen to the answers.

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