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  • Writer's pictureForum Mehta

Beyond Addressing Conflict: Creating Positive Affect in a Couple Relationship

In any relationship, one will face conflict, but how that conflict is addressed is essential in determining what the resolution of that conflict looks like.

Image by Anna Shvets

There are two women in the picture. Both are wearing white top and blue jeans. One is sitting down and looking away. Her expression reflects sadness. The other woman is standing close to her and looking away. Both of their arms are crossed.

Research done by Gottman et al (1998) showed that positive affect was the only predictor for marital conflict and marital stability 6 years post-marriage. Positive affect means engaging in positive interactions with someone which could be in the form of humor or affection and it is helpful in gauging the future health of a relationship.

Driver, J. L., & Gottman, J. M. conducted a study where they observed couples. The study revealed that positive everyday moments impacted the conflict the couple had. Having enthusiasm in daily conversations is also helpful, and impacts the affection that couples hold with each other. Thus increasing positive interactions can also help in improving conflict and communication. This could include various things like asking your spouse about their day, doing things for them, de-escalting a fight by engaging in humor, trying to understand differing perspectives etc. For this various things can be done when faced with an argument or conflict :

Caring days: A ritual can be introduced like caring days where the couple devotes doing certain things for the other person, which makes them feel supported. These caring days increases positive affect as they shift the focus towards care and thoughtfulness parts in the relationship. This could look like helping the partner clean the house or taking over planning for a relaxed vacation.

Turning towards: This means showing support, having an emotional connection, and passion. Turning towards occurs when there is a bid for connection like one partner goes ‘Hey, I feel low’ and the other partner reciprocates and by asking a follow-up question like ‘Tell me what is happening?’ instead of ignoring it or dismissing it. Partners who respond positively are turning towards their partners, and partners who respond negatively are turning away from each other. The reason turning towards is helpful is because meeting your partner’s bids act as an emotional bank balance where you are making deposits which act as emotional cushioning during the rough times.

Soft start up: This means engaging in conversations without any criticism or contempt. If a conflict or an argument is approached with harshness then it is likely to end with the same tension it started with. Soft start-up could be done by the use of compassion and humour like, when one partner is on time and the other is not, one spouse can give into a joke about being late and the other partner acknowledges that they can try to be on time where are accepting to implement a change. However soft start up doesn't have to be diplomatic, it can be direct about a request for punctuality without being critical of how other partner’s tardiness.

Engaging in repair attempts: When conversations are getting negative and out of hand, repair attempts can be used to put a break on the conversation. This requires one person to engage in a repair attempt and the other person to accept it. Could be using various phrases like “ I feel criticized, can you rephrase that?”, ‘ I need you to be gentle with me’, ‘My reactions were too extreme, Im sorry’, ‘Let’s compromise here’, ‘I see your point’. Formalizing these repair attempts can help the other person notice them and these scripted phrases help in using words that put brakes on the conversation. These can also be seen as bids, and eventually, you can also have your personalized keywords or phrases which indicate to the other person that they need to put a break.

Compromise: Engaging in negotiation or addressing any conflict is possible once there has been an attempt to soft start up, repair, and keep calm. A compromise would require you to have an open mind to your partner’s desires and wishes, even though you may not agree with it or have a different view point. When there is genuine openness there is a possibility of accepting your partner’s influence which is an important part of a healthy marriage. This can also be facilitated by asking your partner more questions about their point of view and focusing on the parts which by objective standards are reasonable.

This scene is from a movie called ‘The Break Up’. Gary and Brooke are staying together and after hosting a dinner party for their friend they end up in a fight. Brooke feels underappreciated and is over functioning where she is cooking for dinner, has cleaned the house, and when she asked Gary to help her with the dishes he said how he wanted to rest and attend to them later on. Brooke felt angry and hurt and spoke of how she needed him to do the dishes and Gary spoke of how this can be done later on and that he needs rest. This led to a fight where Brooke was speaking of her disappointments about him not getting the lemons for dinner, or appreciating her effort and Gary felt he was always being nagged and whatever he did was not enough.

This scene can be watched here:

Here there are multiple things that can be done to address this conflict.

Firstly Booke could express her annoyance about the lemons not being purchased by using a soft start where she could use I statements and state her displeasure. She did invite Gary to clean the dishes but here there could be more emphasis on the help. There could be a discussion about compromising where Gary and Brooke can both state their perspectives on what are the expectations they have on doing the house chores. What is the level of preparation in mind and is there a common ground where both of them are willing to adjust? Brooke could be in charge of certain things like cleaning the house and Gary or bringing in the necessary items for the get-together. This is necessary as Brooke is overburdened with her work and house duties. There could be a discussion about house chores, sharing and dividing the responsibilities, and having a rooster maybe for the week.

We also noticed that in this fight many things from the past were also brought up. It is important to note that in an argument or a fight, this is common but it is essential to refrain from doing that. When discussing something about a present matter stick to the present-day topic. Having said that, there were a lot of unmet needs from both their ends. Here when things would have cooled down Brooke could have spoken about how she would like more appreciation from Gary maybe words of affirmation from him, how even buying flowers would represent that. Instead of saying ‘You never say anything nice’, say ‘I would like some appreciation for the work I do around the house’. Brooke also needs to be vocal about her needs, she spoke of dropping hints about ballet but having clear direct communication would also help Gary understand Brooke. Gary could state how he feels he is trying his best and wants to provide for her and this discussion would have cleared out their differences regarding what trying even looks like for Gary trying means Brooke not having to work but for Brooke, Gary doing his bit would mean helping around the house. Gary also felt like he was being nagged a lot, so a culture of appreciation should be developed around their relationship where they notice and acknowledge each other’s efforts. This will act as deposits in your bank account as a couple and when conflicts do there will be space for some debiting to happen and will cushion your relationship. Also engaging in bids of connection or turning towards each other, where you enquire about your partner’s day every day, help them complete their tasks, or plan something for a date night would lead to a stronger bond.


Driver, J. L., & Gottman, J. M. (2004). Daily marital interactions and positive affect during marital conflict among newlywed couples. Family process, 43(3), 301-314.

Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

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