Many couples feel that their arguments never get resolved because one partner seems to find the confrontation easy while the other partner wants to avoid it.
“We just cannot communicate” is a common statement made in couples therapy. This communication pattern is very common:
John and Sue are frequently getting into arguments that result in John storming off and giving Sue the cold shoulder. Sue gets even angrier with John when he does this and, despite how many times he says he doesn’t want to talk about it anymore, she continues to have her say and seems to get louder and more intense.
In therapy, John says that he just can’t handle it when Sue gets so intense and feels like he wants to get away from her. As they describe the route their arguments normally take, it is obvious that they really love each other and want to find a better way of resolving issues.
Sue has a “hot style” – she wants to engage immediately, to “put things on the table” and get it done. If things don’t get resolved immediately, she feels anxious, distressed or preoccupied.
On the other hand, John — the partner with the “cold style” — doesn’t do well with Sue’s intensity. He needs time to cool off and think things through. He prefers to stop the argument and come back to it when he has had some time to reflect and feel calmer.
This difference is normal in relationships. Many couples learn to deal with it and accept their differences. However, sometimes it’s hard for one person to recognize the other style as equally valid. That only creates more conflict.
When Sue approaches John with intense emotion, John’s natural inclination is to move away and think about things first. On the other hand, Sue really wants to resolve things and gets frustrated when John leaves the discussion, thinking that he just wants to avoid talking about the subject. But the more Sue insists, the more John feels that he is under pressure and needs more space and time apart to think and reflect.
Once Sue and John recognized that these were just different conflict styles, they were curious about why they chose their specific style. Sue remembered that whenever they had a fight in her house growing up, her dad would sit her down and say to her, “We love each other, so we are not going to go away until we resolve this now.”
She learned that when you love someone you don’t walk away until things are resolved.
John grew up with a vocal, often moody mom. He remembered feeling overwhelmed by her and wanting to get away from her when things got heated. He would go to his room and wait until things calmed down.
Different communication styles only really become a problem when the partners do not understand their differences and fail to accommodate one another. But partners can learn to relate more positively:
- Choose to interpret the problem as a problem with communication styles. It is easy to make assumptions about your partner’s intentions. Try not to assume negative intentions such as “she is attacking me” or “he is always abandoning me,” and rather try to see what is happening as a difference in communication style.
- If your partner has a “hot” conflict style: Let them know that you are interested in talking about things, and that you’re taking time right now because you need to think about it and cool down. It is really important to get back to them when you say you will. If you need to stop the conversation, say something to them that shows you care — for example, “I love you and I’m sure we’ll find a way to resolve it.”
- If your partner has a “cold” style: Give them more time and space. When you talk about things, let them have time to think about it for a few minutes and only then respond. Don’t immediately continue to make your next point. Take it one point at a time and make sure to monitor your tone of voice and speed. If it gets too heated they will back away. If they back away you should say you’re sorry and take a minute to regroup before continuing to talk about it.
- Stretch your comfort zone a little. It is useful for both partners to acknowledge their partner’s style of communicating and to make allowances for this. For the “hot” style try to tolerate a little more ‘cool;’ try to slow things down and take a breath. Allow your partner the space they ask for. On the other hand, the cold style could try to tolerate a bit more ‘heat.’ Perhaps you could try dealing with the issue when it arises and allow for a little intensity in your partner.
- Use more structured conversation. This helps both of you feel more heard and the conversation is less likely to escalate so you won’t need to negotiate styles.