If you’re anything like me, just hearing the word “conflict” sends you running to the hills. I’m a people-pleaser to the highest degree, so dealing with folks who aren’t pleased with me causes me a lot of anxiety. Giving someone bad news, boldly stating my opinions when I know they differ from others’, and having hard conversations aren’t really strengths of mine. Usually I just fake it until I make it. Unfortunately, when it comes to marriage, one can only fake it so much.
John Gottman, Ph.D., a world-renowned marriage researcher, theorized three types of conflict styles that people tend to exhibit when in relationships with one another: avoidance, validating, and volatile. Avoiders, like me, resist conflict like the plague. People who are volatile are highly expressive with their emotions and have no problem discussing their differences in opinion with loved ones. Lastly, validators fall somewhere in between, expressing their emotions and opinions in steady and calm ways.
I first learned about these three conflict styles in graduate school during my couples’ therapy class. Slowly I began to understand why my husband and I struggle so much during conflict: I’m a conflict avoider, and my husband is volatile, which is a significant mismatch. Any time we disagree, I want to run and hide, while he wants to talk it out—sometimes loudly. I couldn’t help but wonder how in the world we’d actually work through this and learn how to productively resolve conflict.
A few months ago, however, I found hope. In a meeting, I was introduced to an exercise called “Ouch and Oops,” not knowing it would have any kind of impact on my marriage. Everyone at the meeting was told that if anyone became offended by something someone else said, he/she should say, “Ouch!” Immediately, the person who made the offensive remark was to respond with “Oops!” and apologize for their mishap. The two individuals involved could later discuss the incident further, if appropriate. Instantly I was intrigued and wanted to tell my husband more about this exercise.
So many times, when I unintentionally say something hurtful, my husband reacts the way most volatile people usually do—loudly and emotionally. Instead of apologizing (as I should, since I did something wrong!), I can be quick to avoid the conversation altogether by being defensive.
Defensiveness is never helpful during a disagreement and as a result, my husband would often feel disregarded by my attempts to deflect his feelings.
“Ouch and Oops” works really well because it gives my husband a way to gently initiate conflict. As soon as I hear him say it, I know to immediately say “Oops!” and tune in to his feelings, rather than disregard them. It starts the conversation on the right foot before it gets out of hand, which also helps me feel less anxious. Honestly, it’s been a win/win for the both of us.
I still remember having a quiet yet intense disagreement with my husband a few months ago. As soon as I heard him say “Ouch,” I stopped in my tracks, said “Oops,” and prepared myself to listen to his perspective. It almost didn’t even feel like conflict but rather a really intense conversation. After we worked our way through it, I remember thinking, Wow…I think that helped. Prior to that evening, we had only really used “Ouch and Oops” in a joking manner. During that conversation, however, we actually respected each other’s differences and found ourselves on the other side, completely unscathed.
If you and your partner really struggle to initiate conflict, perhaps because of differing conflict styles, I definitely recommend trying the “Ouch and Oops” method. It may sound silly, but in my experience, it works. I’m not going to guarantee that all your arguments will be smooth sailing here on out, but learning how to initiate conflict in a nonconfrontational manner certainly won’t make matters worse.