Collaborating (assertive, cooperative)
The collaborative approach to conflict resolution seeks creative solutions by identifying primary issues in an effort to understand the other person’s perspective. This conflict management style encourages mutual respect and trust to help build a healthy relationship through a “win-win” approach.
Compromising (intermediate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness)
The compromising style demonstrates a willingness to surrender some goals while convincing our partner to do the same. The Thomas-Kilmann model labels this a “lose-lose” scenario where neither partner’s needs are met. I would argue this personality type leans more toward a “win-win” outcome, through balanced assertiveness and cooperativeness. As the previous figure on conflict management styles illustrates, a compromising conflict management style offers a balance between concern for one’s own needs and concern for those of others.
Accommodating (unassertive, cooperative)
The accommodating style emphasizes relationship preservation over meaningful conflict resolution with one partner discounting their own needs in an effort to gain accord. This conflict management style can work against our own goals, objectives, and preferred outcomes.
Avoiding (unassertive, uncooperative)
The avoidant style advocates the intentional disregard for conflict by withdrawing from the conflict itself rather than addressing the issue straight on. This conflict management style expects the problem to resolve itself or disappear altogether.
Research shows we are capable of using all five conflict management styles but that we tend to use some styles more effectively than others, and therefore tend to rely on these more than others. Furthermore, research shows that conflict management styles are not mutually exclusive. We typically employ a particular style as our dominant style in a given situation, but we also adopt other styles depending on the nature of the conflict and the circumstances surrounding it. Collectively, our behaviors toward conflict resolution develop from a combination of personal characteristics, requirements defined by a given circumstance, and our behavioral disposition toward conflict.
In addition to behavioral responses identified by conflict management styles, we also employ physical, emotional, and cognitive responses to conflict, which I address in the next segment.
Physical, Emotional, and Cognitive Responses to Conflict
Physical Response to Conflict
Our physical response to conflict includes irregular breathing patterns, rapid heartbeat, increased perspiration, hunched shoulders, body tension, and altered facial expressions. We communicate these physical responses nonverbally and involuntarily. These physical reflex actions often meet with heightened anxiety and a diminished capacity for articulating our position in a calm, rational manner. Our physical response to conflict also influences our emotional reactions.
Emotional Response to Conflict
With emotional response to conflict, our feelings can span the gamut from elation to despair or placation to anger. Our range of emotional responses correlates to the level of conflict or perceived conflict from our point of view. Where some people fly off the handle in a stressful situation, others maintain poise and calm. This explains, in part, why some people function well in law enforcement or emergency rescue occupations while others find themselves more suited to less stressful work environments. Our partners read our emotional responses either directly, by observing our physical reaction to conflict, or indirectly through the negative vibe we give off. But unlike our physical responses, which signify our mood through body language, facial gestures, or tone of voice, our emotional responses can send mixed signals. Are we sarcastic or sincerely irritated? Simply tired or mad as hell? Engrossed in the conversation’s content or bored out of our skull? The high potential for misinterpretation can make a confusing situation worse, especially for couples with poor communication skills. The trick is learning to gauge our partner’s emotional response and engage them accordingly.
Cognitive Response to Conflict
Our cognitive response to conflict portrays itself as our conscience or inner voice telling us to back off or step out. We channel these cognitive responses through our continuous monitoring of environmental cues as well as our own behavior and that of our partner’s. Our moods and motivations influence our cognitive responses, which derive from our personal significance of emotionally relevant events in our conscious or subconscious mind. Our cognitive response contributes to our physical and emotional responses to conflict. Think of the cognitive response as a gut feeling to a given situation that elicits a response from our personal library of catalogued emotions and behaviors.
Armed with an awareness, and a deeper understanding of our physical, emotional, and cognitive responses to conflict, we gain a more focused insight into the myriad of thoughts, feelings, and physical reactions derived from conflict in our romantic relationships. Ultimately, we can pave the way for potential solutions through the application of intelligent reasoning over knee-jerk reactions.
Although some research suggests a strong correlation between our personality types and the behavior-oriented conflict management styles, other research suggests a weak relationship between the two. Despite the research ambiguity, our given personality traits and our approach to conflict management are influenced by the choices we make on how we elect to deal with certain conflict situations.
Take a moment and reflect on your own conflict management style—competing, collaborating, compromising, accommodating, or avoiding—and compare your approach to your partner’s. By recognizing your individual conflict management styles, you can improve your self-awareness of how you and your partner respond to stressful situations. Perhaps your behavioral responses are similar or completely different. Either way, focus on recognizing your similarities and differences with a goal of improving communication and compromise through problem solving that involves a clearer understanding of your individual approaches to conflict resolution, rather than applying brute force power struggles that often end badly for everyone involved.
Where conflict management styles help us identify specific behavioral responses to contentious situations in our relationships, temperament styles reveal another layer of our personalities by describing how we respond to each other or how approachable we appear to other people. Temperament styles describe our responsiveness to one another as less or more. Less responsive individuals exhibit colder demeanors toward others who initiate unsolicited interaction—i.e., interaction resulting from another person’s approach without invitation and for no particular reason other than to socialize. On the other extreme, a more responsive person readily accepts others for social interaction and imparts a warmer attitude. Whereas the Thomas-Kilmann conflict management styles help us describe how a person reacts to conflict, temperament theory helps us understand what they are likely to express along a continuum from somberness to indifference to amicability—i.e., are we emotionally distant from our partner, emotionally attached, or somewhere in between? Within this field of study, Dr. Phyllis Arno and Dr. Richard G. Arno endorse five modern temperament styles:
Cholerics remain emotionally detached unless they have reason to approach you. They maintain a strong sense of leadership with desire for control, power, and authority. They are task-oriented and independent. They thrive on appreciation but can come across as mean, arrogant, authoritarian, and callous.
Sanguines prefer emotional closeness in a relationship. They are people-oriented and tend to exhibit a fun-loving, carefree attitude, prospering with lots of recognition from peers. They thrive in social circles with a need to feel popular and at the center of attention. Their attitudes can range from warm, kind, and outgoing to unreliable, disruptive, and arrogant.
Melancholies maintain emotional distance in their relationship. Driven by a search for “intimate perfection,” they strive to be understood, respected, and accepted within their self-imposed morally appropriate boundaries. Like the Cholerics, Melancholies tend to be task-oriented. Melancholies display a creative bent prone to genius with supportive, considerate, and selfless behavior. On the downside, their highly introspective personalities and quest for perfection can make them temperamental, disparaging, and indignant at times.
Phlegmatics lead a quiet, reserved lifestyle with a take it or leave itoutlook. They tend to steer away from conflict with a need to create and maintain a peaceful environment. Phlegmatics make good listeners, remain calm in times of crises, and display high levels of self-control. For the most part, their diplomatic nature serves them well, but their overriding need for tranquility can make them vacillate on issues, shy away from confrontation, and be prone to procrastination.
Supines maintain an emotional closeness but only if you reach out to them. They are motivated to serve a higher cause beyond their own self-interests. They tend to yield their own needs to the interests of their chosen causes. Supines tend to be organized, compassionate, gentle, and faithful, but rely on acceptance from others and sometimes have issues with guilt. They can also be anxious, timorous, and wavering in their commitments. Supines share a common fear of rejection with their Sanguine counterparts. Supines also share a tendency with the Melancholies to harbor anger.
The following graphic summarizes the field of temperament styles. Note how the supine and sanguine styles are at opposite ends of the introverted and extroverted spectrum with sanguine and choleric on opposite ends of the people oriented / task oriented scale. As the temperament figure indicates, phlegmatics strike a balance between responsive / introverted and expressive / extroverted.
We all relate to certain aspects from each of these four temperament styles, the way we all associate, to some extent or another, our core traits with the five conflict management styles covered in the previous section. While our natural affinities direct us toward certain styles more than others, we tend to make adjustments based on circumstances and needs within our relationship. At worst, we can choose to ignore our own latent tendencies and those of our partners. At best, we can learn to identify certain temperament characteristics to help us improve our understanding of our partner’s perspective and work with them, more than against them, to address relationship conflicts. Despite some of the negative attributes associated with the different temperament styles, there are no right or wrong approaches, only alternatives when it comes to effective conflict management. The more we understand ourselves and our partners in terms of our core values, needs, desires, and general philosophies on life, the more we’re able to adjust our styles to work together and reach an acceptable compromise.
Gender Perspectives on Compromise
I once read, “A compromise is an agreement whereby both parties get what neither of them wanted.” In the previous chapter on The Art of Communication, we examined gender differences to understand how men and women differ with unique feelings, beliefs, behaviors, and needs. With respect to gender perspectives on compromise, the key theme is perspective.
Look at the following images and ask yourself what you see.
Do you see this in two dimensions or three? Or both?
Do you see an angel, roads leading into a tunnel, a skyscraper, or something else?
Do you see a three-toed claw, a gorilla, a dog, or Jimmy Hoffa?
Do you see the elephant?
Time and again, we see what we want to see, a consequence derived partly from past experiences and learned behaviors. Much is left to interpretation, as no two people will view the same images, or relationship issues, from the same perspective. This ties into our gender views on relationships, where we see things one way based on our preconceived notions of how things should look from our own perspective. More specifically, our gender differences often skew our ability to understand and respect the value of each other’s needs.
In the book, Difficult Conversations, authors Stone, Patton, and Heen describe how we “often go through an entire conversation—or indeed an entire relationship—without ever realizing that each of us is paying attention to different things, that our views are based on differing information.” The authors also describe two important factors that determine how we interpret what we see, namely our past experiences and the inherent rules we’ve learned about how things should and should not be done. I believe our past experiences and lessons learned shape our individual value systems as well as define our needs.
According to Dr. Willard F. Harley, Junior, a psychologist, marriage counselor, and author of His Needs, Her Needs, a husband and wife each have five basic marital needs they must fulfill. And according to Dr. Harley, when a husband and wife exhibit all five of their respective qualities, a man and woman become irresistible to one another. I assert that, for the most part, these gender-specific needs, as Dr. Harley describes them, also apply to unmarried couples engaged in long-term romantic relationships. The following table compares a husband and wife’s five basic needs, while the subsequent paragraphs elaborate on the significance of each:
|Husband’s Basic Needs||Wife’s Basic Needs|
|An Attractive Spouse||Honesty and Openness|
|Domestic Support||Financial Support|
His Need for Sexual Fulfillment / Her Need for Affection
Let’s begin by comparing a man’s need for sexual fulfillment with a woman’s need for affection. Most people would agree a man’s need for sexual fulfillment and a woman’s need for affection derive not from a marriage certificate but in how both genders perceive what it means to feel loved. In many ways, affection and sexual fulfillment coexist like a double helix, where the best outcomes derive from a combination of the two combined.
Dr. John Gray expands on this notion in, Mars and Venus in the Bedroom, where he explains how women require a sense of belonging and affection from their partner to feel closer to them and awaken a strong desire for physical intimacy. Men on the other hand, require sexual fulfillment as a way to achieve a closer bond with their partner. At face value, these two approaches appear contradictory. Yet many thriving romantic relationships abound. Why? Because these couples find a way to compromise.
Age plays a role as well for both sexes and their willingness to compromise. Studies show women are more likely to make romantic compromises at a younger age, whereas men tend to compromise more at an older age. Research also supports this notion from a biological perspective, where a woman’s declining estrogen levels have been linked to a stronger desire for independence. Conversely, as testosterone declines in older men, they become more “prosocial” and eager to make deeper connections with the opposite sex.
In Mathew Kelly’s, The Seven Levels of Intimacy, the author underscores the importance of trying to balance the amount of sex with the amount of quality time not involving sex. In Kelly’s words, “If we overvalue our physical intimacy and begin to judge and value our relationship on the basis of physical intimacy, then over time, we neglect the nurturing of the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual aspects of the relationship.”
For all of us, the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional components of our relationship constitute three quarters of our relationship pie, so to speak. If we recall the see-saw analogy and how compromise can be achieved where we negotiate to balance our needs and desires, a relationship with disproportionate emphasis on physical intimacy would outweigh the other components and cause a tilt, or rift, in our relationship. And from the opposite perspective, the same logic holds true for relationships disproportionately based on spiritual, intellectual, and emotional needs, where these needs might outweigh the intimacy component and cause an imbalance.
His Need for Recreational Companionship / Her Need for Conversation
Men seek recreational companionship as a way to engage in what they perceive to be common interests. In many instances, this serves a two-fold purpose. First, men prefer to talk less and do more. No surprise there. It’s in our nature to engage in recreational activity, whether it involves camping, surfing, live sporting events, boating, hiking, riding motorcycles, or anything else that satisfies our desire to share the recreational experience. Secondly, men often assume if they involve you in a favorite recreational activity, you’ll grow to love it as well. Case in point, the endless boating excursions I enjoyed years ago along the Potomac River in Virginia with my girlfriend straddled on the back of my personal watercraft. From my perspective, I lived for those rides on sunny days with calm water and gas for a buck twenty-five a gallon—my sweetheart clutching my life jacket while we skimmed across the river at highway speeds. I’d always assumed she loved every minute of our waterway adventures, only later to discover she merely tolerated those rides because she knew they made me happy. A caring and considerate note in my book, but an important lesson learned as well. For me, the experience was more about adventure through recreation time together. For her, the experience meant tolerating my thrill–seeking needs for the opportunity to spend quality time together doing something she knew I enjoyed.
From a woman’s perspective, conversation serves to strengthen the relationship by communicating thoughts and feelings. This emotional connection helps bond the relationship, and for many women, channel their primary language through words of affirmation. Unlike most men who view conversation as a method to understand a particular problem and formulate a solution, conversation provides women with a way to share or vent. Women also use conversation as a way to increase intimacy in their relationship—a nuance frequently overlooked by men who incorrectly assume women always prefer conversation over sex, when in reality, appealing conversation often stirs a woman’s desire for sex.
His Need for an Attractive Spouse / Her Need for Honesty and Openness
Men often seek the “trophy girlfriend” or “trophy wife” in an effort to fulfill their desire for recognition. No man prefers to have a homely woman on his arm when he’s out in public, but that’s not to say all men define physical features as their highest priority need in a romantic relationship; although, many of us do. A man’s desire for an attractive partner stems from his desire to feel good about himself, to boost his ego, and to remind himself that despite the pool of available single women on the market, he doesn’t have to play the field any longer. Women like to dress sexy to feel sexy. Men like to hold attractive women to feel sexy and masculine.
In general, men focus on physical features more so than women, who remain prone to look inward and see the person behind the mask. This partially explains why women have a stronger need for honesty and openness rather than a need for an attractive boyfriend or husband. Like their male counterparts, this doesn’t imply that women prefer to date unattractive men. Quite the opposite. Nonetheless, women prefer honesty and openness because these characteristics help build and maintain a suitable relationship. Women perceive men who display honesty and openness as less likely to stray from the relationship and more likely to give their girlfriend or wife the time and attention she deserves.
Men also prefer women who are open and honest, provided of course, they light up a room when they enter. Studies show both men and women prefer individuals who maintain a combination of physical attractiveness and pleasing personality over attractiveness and wealth. The extent to which men and women will compromise on traits such as attractiveness, intelligence, sensitivity, and age, often varies. Studies also show men are more willing than women to compromise their general standards for a casual sexual encounter than a long-term relationship; however, when a measure of attractiveness becomes the sole criteria for the desire to be with someone, women tend to hold a higher minimum attractiveness standard for a casual sex partner than for a long-term relationship. Furthermore, for women, casual sex isn’t always as “casual” as men believe.
His Need for Domestic Support / Her Need for Financial Support
From my experience, the need for domestic and financial support more closely aligns with married couples and monogamous couples who cohabitate in a less formal, but a strongly committed, relationship. In the case of married couples, a husband’s need for domestic support derives from his need to have someone share the load of daily chores—namely cooking, cleaning, shopping, and assistance with children, or other commitments requiring a second set of hands. In contrast, wives possess a greater need for financial support to ensure financial security for themselves and their families. In the most traditional sense, the husband brings home the paycheck, and the wife decides the most prudent way to spend it, thus ensuring the persistence of basic needs like food and shelter. This theme also persists for many modern families as well, where both husband and wife work full time jobs.
His Need for Admiration / Her Need for Family Commitment
As with the need for domestic and financial support, the needs for admiration and family commitment more closely align with married couples and monogamous couples who cohabitate in a less formal, but a strongly committed, relationship. A husband’s need for admiration represents a core value, as men tend to measure their worth through their achievements. This notion of self-worth and the feeling of accomplishment drives a man’s desire to support his wife’s needs. Without admiration, a man loses this desire, and with it, his ability to maintain an emotional connection to his partner.
For married women, the need for family commitment draws from the need for security and stability in a relationship. With the family taken care of, all is right with the world. Women want their husbands to take the initiative and lead. This means involvement with the children beyond casual conversation with the little people running around the house.