Many couples believe their arguments never get resolved because one partner seems to find the confrontation easy while the other wants to avoid it. “We just can’t communicate!” is a frequent statement we hear from couples in counseling.
This communication pattern is very common. It usually looks something like this: John and Sue are frequently getting into arguments that result in John storming off and giving Sue the cold shoulder. Sue just gets 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 gets even louder and more intense.
Back in therapy, John says he just can’t handle it when Sue gets so intense and feels like he wants to get away from her. Even so, as they describe the route their arguments normally take, it’s clear that they really love each other and want to find a better way of resolving issues.
The pattern happens when one partner approaches the confrontation head-on while the other partner wants to move away from the conflict and calm things down. The first partner has a “hot style”—they want to engage immediately, to “put things on the table” and get it done. If things don’t get resolved immediately, they might feel anxious, distressed, or preoccupied. On the other hand, the partner with the “cold style” doesn’t do well with the intensity, or “heat” of the first person. They need time to cool off and think things through, so they might prefer to stop the argument and come back to it when they have had some time to reflect and feel calmer.
Having this difference is normal in relationships! Many couples learn to deal with it and accept their differences. But sometimes it’s hard for couples to recognize the other style as equally valid and tend to get caught up in trying to do things their way, which only creates more conflict.
In our marriage counseling sessions, we recognized that 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 wants to resolve things quickly and gets frustrated when he leaves the discussion, thinking that he just wants to avoid talking about the subject. But the more Sue insists, the more John feels pressured and needs more space and time apart to think and reflect. In reality, both partners want to resolve the issue—they just approach it differently.
Once Sue and John recognized that these are just different conflict styles, they become curious about why they tended to choose them. Sue remembers that whenever she and her dad had an argument growing up, he would sit her down and say, “We love each other, so we’re not going to go away until we resolve this now”—and they would do just that. So, her learning was that when you love someone, you don’t walk away until things are resolved. John, on the other hand, grew up with a mom who was very vocal and at times quite moody. 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—and so he adopted a style that cools around conflict.
As they discovered each other’s family contexts, John and Sue were able to feel more empathy and understanding for each other’s style. They realized that they’ve learned from their families how to handle conflict and anger, as well as how to handle closeness. Perhaps most important, they realized that until now, they’ve taken it for granted that this is how things should be done.
Different communication styles only really become a problem when partners don’t understand their differences and fail to accommodate one another. But partners can absolutely learn to relate more positively. Here are some tips:
- Choose to interpret the problem as a problem with communication styles. It’s easy to make assumptions about your partner’s intentions or blame them for dealing with issues differently. Try not to assume negative intentions like “she’s attacking me” or “he’s always abandoning me.” Rather, try to view what’s happening as a simple difference in communication style.
- If your partner has a “hot” conflict style, let them know you’re truly interested in talking about things, and that if you’re taking time out right now, it’s not because you don’t want to resolve the issue, but because you need to think about it and cool down. (And to prevent the conflict from escalating, be sure to get back to them when you say you will.) If you need to stop the conversation, say something that shows you care—for example, “I love you and I’m sure we’ll find a way to resolve this.”
- If your partner has a “cold” style, give them more time and space. After you say your piece, let them take time to think about it for a few minutes and only then respond. Understand that they might need time to get to what’s really bothering them. Don’t immediately continue to talk or make your next point. Take it one point at a time, and be sure to monitor your tone of voice and speed. If things get too heated, they will back away—and if they do, apologize and take a minute to regroup before moving on.
- Stretch your comfort zone a little. It’s useful for both partners to acknowledge their partner’s style of communicating and to make allowances for this. If you’re the “hot” partner, try to tolerate a little more “coolness” by slowing things down and taking a breath. Allow your partner the space they ask for. On the other hand, the “cold” partner can try to tolerate a bit more “heat.” Perhaps you can try dealing with the issue as it arises (a good start is to identify your own feelings) and allow for a little intensity in your partner.
- Use more structured conversation. When you’re finding yourselves in an argument, try to turn it into a conversation. This will help you both feel more heard, which will already go a long way toward the resolution you both need.