Regulated Conflict Resolution Styles (CSR)
The three subgroups that qualify as stable and regulated are validating, volatile, and avoidant (Gottman, 1994b).
A validating partner listens attentively to their partner while showing support and concern. Even when discussing difficult issues, validating partners display at lot of ease and calm. It is typical of these partners to let their partner know that they consider their opinions and emotions valid even when they don’t agree with them. These couples begin their disagreements by letting each person explain their perspective on the topic. After both have been heard, the couple begins a process of trying to convince their partner of the rightness of their opinion. The discussion ends when they negotiate a compromise (Gottman, 1994b).
Because their relationships emphasize mutual respect, validators pick their battles carefully. Arguments are more like problem-solving discussions. Validating partners tend to be good friends and emphasize we-ness in their relationship; however, sometimes validating couples turn their relationships into passionless arrangements in which romance and selfhood are sacrificed for friendship and togetherness. Couples can lose their sense of self and end up forgoing their personal development in favor of keeping the relationship strong (Gottman, 1994b). Still, these marriages seem to be solid ones. Validating has been correlated with the highest relationship satisfaction and is often the type of conflict resolution that clinicians and educators teach in classes and therapy (Kurdek, 1995; Markman, Stanley & Blumberg, 2010).
In contrast volatile relationships are characterized by high emotion with extreme levels of both positive and negative behaviors, however, more positive than negative behaviors still prevail. These couples see themselves as equals and work toward a relationship that highlights and strengthens individuality (Gottman, 1994a, 1994b). A volatile couple engages in what most people think of as a “fight”. They exhibit active engagement and are not passive or withdrawn. They discuss the issue rationally and hear each other’s views; the volatile couple spends most of their time in a heated attempt to persuade each other to change their opinion. Compromise is not their style!
These couples have high emotion when they disagree, but instead of evolving into something hostile in nature, their marriage remains warm and loving. In fact, these couples are characteristic of marriages that remain passionate and exciting throughout their course (Gottman, 1994b). They, like validators, do not intentionally inflict emotional pain on one another, and their extreme negative emotions are balanced by intense positive feelings as well (Gottman 1994a, 1994b). One risk of a volatile relationship is that if a couple loses sight of the boundaries of their relationship, they could slide into a hostile marriage (an unregulated type) and lead their relationship into self-destruction (Gottman 1994b). Volatile couples seem to enjoy playfully teasing one another, but this brand of humor can be risky. They censor few of their thoughts, and hurt feelings can inadvertently occur.
An avoidant CRS is characterized by someone who will not argue for their position but instead will minimize the disagreements and agree to disagree. They are conflict minimizers and make light of their differences rather than resolve them. Perhaps one reason for this is that little gets resolved in avoidant marriages when differences are aired. In their disagreements, neither partner attempts to persuade the other and they don’t seek for a compromise. Solving things in these marriages means that either they ignore the difference or one partner agrees to act more like the other. However, in the process of agreeing to disagree, they reaffirm the love and satisfaction they have in their marriage overall, and they believe that the positives outweigh the majority of issues where the y disagree. They do not commonly use behaviors or words intent on hurting their partner or converting their partner to their way of thinking, and so their relationship remains regulated and relatively quiet and peaceful (Gottman, 1994b). Avoidant couples tend to have calm, pleasant lives. They display little of the intense passion that volatile couples and even validating couples do. However, this creates a potential risk, as they do not know how to address a conflict should they be forced to do so someday. If an issue comes up that is too overwhelming for couples to “agree to disagree,” the issue could negatively overwhelm their interaction and the marriage could suffer. Additionally, their marriages can become lonely, as partners eventually feel their spouse doesn’t really know or understand them because talk about disagreements is always shut down so quickly (Gottman, 1994b).
When applying the theory of self-regulation to couple relationships, Halford proposed that couple “relationship self-regulation” (RSR) works as a cycle of appraisal, goal setting, and change implementation (Halford et al., 1994). This cycle begins with appraisal, which evaluates current relationship behaviors and the major influences on those behaviors. It continues with goal setting, where partners define specific and actionable goals for change based on the previous appraisal. And the cycle finishes with implementation, where a partner takes active steps to achieve their goals. This process is iterative and cycles back to appraisal in as much as the desired behavior changes were achieved (Halford et al., 2007).
From the literature, it is obvious that all three regulated or stable types of CRS have their pros and cons. The differences between each of these three styles are why we think that there may be variances in the ways that each CRS uses RSR in their relationship. For example, because avoidant couples rarely continue the argument until a compromise or change is made, research shows that their ability to resolve issues is less effective than that of validating or volatile couples (Gottman, 1994b). We believe that a couple’s lack of experience continuing to discuss the issue until the point that someone agrees to change or convinces the other to change will negatively impact their ability to make and implement relationship-oriented goals that would bring about desired positive change.
In avoidant relationships, the discussion of issues is limited. If couples seldom talk at a deeper level about what is bothering them about their partner or the relationship, it will be harder for each partner to begin the RSR process with an appraisal (the first step of RSR) of the relationship and what is lacking. The partners may simply lack the knowledge to address the right problems and create self-directed goals for marital improvement. We believe volatile couples may have similar problems implementing RSR, albeit for different reasons. Volatile couples run the risk of arguing about almost anything in their relationship —from large things like moving to small things like what to eat. This frequent battle about often trivial things may make it difficult for couples to hear beyond the smaller issues to understand their partner’s deeper needs and real complaints.
Additionally, because of the frequency of the bickering, the implicit message is “you should change” and the partner bringing up the concern may not think about how they could make changes to improve the relationship. In a volatile relationship, feeling empathy for one’s partner needs is not a goal (Gottman, 1994b). Rather, “winning the debate” is their goal. For this reason, we believe volatile couples will struggle with appraising their relationships to look for needed change because their pattern teaches them that usually when things are bad, it is because their partner is wrong, and when things are good, everything is great and highly fulfilling. For this reason, we think RSR will be more difficult for volatile couples as well.
Because validators’arguments are more like problem-solving sessions anyway (Gottman, 1994b), we believe they will be the most successful at implementing the principles of RSR into their relationship. When these couples disagree, they work hard to find a compromise and solution that works best for both parties. This willingness and practice at empathy and compromising leads us to believe that they will be the best not only at appraising their relationship and the changes needed but also at setting specific, actionable goals (the second step of RSR) to bring about change because they usually do this step with their partner in the midst of talking about the issue (Gottman, 1993; Fitzsimons & Bargh, 2003). Only when one deeply understands a partner’s complaint can one engage in RSR.
While most conflict suggests that someone needs to change, validating couples encourage an environment of compromise and personal responsibility to the problem. This belief that validating couples may engage in RSR behaviors more often than volatile or avoidant couples is supported by research that showed that in a comparison of the three CRSs, validators scored higher on relationship satisfaction, stability, communication, and conflict strategies than the other two styles of couples (Holman & Jarvis, 2003). In one study, couples who self-identified as validating had the highest relationship satisfaction and stability across the three relationship types. Additionally, the validating group had the highest positive communication means and the lowest negative communication scores. These scores were significantly different from the scores of the volatile and avoidant groups (Holman & Jarvis, 2003). With validating couples scoring the highest in positive communication of the three stable CRSs, their ability to engage in RSR will likely be higher.
While Gottman (1994a, 1994b) has shown all these stable styles of CRS are related to relationship satisfaction about equally, more recent research has suggested that this may not be the case and that validating couples may actually report higher relationship qualities like positive communication, satisfaction and stability than the other two types of couples (Holman & Jarvis, 2003). To further understand the connection between these styles—especially the volatile and avoidant conflict resolution styles—and RSR will help us further understand how CRSs lead to relationship satisfaction.
Balance theory states that stable couples must have at least five positive interactions for
every negative interaction (Gottman, 1993).
David C. Lichti, LMFT