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Successful couples use this 1 strategy to solve conflict, say psychologists who've studied 40,000 couples

Xavier Lorenzo | Moment | Getty Images

More than two-thirds, 69%, of conflicts in relationships are perpetual, meaning they never go away, according to data from The Gottman Institute, a research lab run by renowned clinical psychologists John and Julie Gottman 

The couple has interviewed more than 3,000 couples and followed some for as long as 20 years. They have also studied more than 40,000 couples who are about to begin couples therapy.

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Through their research they learned that just because a fight is reoccurring doesn't mean it has to be detrimental. In fact, you can handle any relationship conflict if you know how to fight right.

"So when we think about fighting right, whether talking about a perpetual problem or a solvable problem, what is the biggest mistake that the disasters of relationships make?" John Gottman said at a TED Talk in April. "The answer is that they fight to win, which means somebody has to lose. What do the masters do, instead? They fight to understand."

Some problems are more situational while others seem to linger, but the healthy way to handle them is the same.

3 types of problems

There are three categories that almost also problems fall into, according to the Gottmans:

  • Solvable problems: This conflict is simply about a singular issue, like doing the dishes, and there may not be a deeper meaning behind each partner's position.
  • Perpetual problems: This is a fight that occurs because of fundamental differences in personalities or lifestyle choices.
  • Gridlock perpetual problems: This is a perpetual problem that has been mishandled. Discussion about these issues can feel repetitive and exhausting.

Regardless of the type of conflict you're experiencing, if you're fighting to prove a point and not to understand the other person's perspective, it's unlikely you'll be able to come to a resolution.

"Fighting to understand means taking a conversation about an issue and going much deeper to understand what's beneath your partner's position on the issue," Julie Gottman said at the TED Talk. "That builds the connection."

What would your 'ideal dream' be?

In order to fight to understand, ask your partner a set of pre-designed questions about how they came to their conclusion and what their "ideal dream" in this situation would be.

The Gottmans offered up the example of a couple they coached where one person wanted a dog and their partner did not. If the partner who wanted the dog just listed all the reasons they believed a pet would improve their lives, they weren't going to understand the other person's hesitancies.

However, if they asked questions that probed into their partner's thinking they would be better able to understand and resolve the issue. Some questions include:

  1. "Did something in your childhood prompt you to take this stance?"
  2. "What is your ideal dream regarding this issue?"

The person who doesn't want the dog might say they know that their lifestyle isn't conducive to caring for a pet and they would miss their freedom. The other might want a dog because they see it as a test run for kids. Now, they both understand that the conversation is less about a pet and more about what they want to prioritize in their future.

The injects some empathy into the fight and allows both sides to express themselves without fear of judgment. If more couples handled conflicts like this, The Gottmans say more problems would be resolved in a healthy, respectful way.

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