One morning last fall, Kyle Benson, 30, sat in his home office, lost in his work. His cat was meowing because its litter box wasn’t clean. As his girlfriend was rushing out the door to get to work, she asked him why he hadn’t cleaned it.
He thought she was criticizing him.
She thought he didn’t care about the cat.
And that’s how the couple got into a heated argument, Benson recalls — over a litter box.
It might sound silly, says Benson, a relationship coach in Seattle, Washington, but the argument revealed a lot about their relationship and how they handle conflict.
“What’s interesting is the research has shown it’s not necessarily conflict that’s bad, it’s how couples interact in conflict,” Benson tells NBC News BETTER.
“The first goal, before even starting to resolve the conflict or try to understand what went wrong, is to try to make a repair attempt …, so then you can actually engage in a dialogue to actually work towards resolving the issue,” he says.
Later that night, Benson and his girlfriend, Heather, used five steps recommended by The Gottman Institute to resolve their conflict.
Step 1: Express how you feel
The first step, according to Benson, is to discuss how each of you felt during the argument.
“By just listing off some of the feelings and not going into the details, it kind of helps both partners start to understand what emotions were present in the conflict and sometimes what was lurking below the surface in terms of the feelings that were there and the perceptions that people had,” says Benson.
Benson explains that their cat was sick and elderly, and has been a source of stress for his girlfriend.
“She’s kind of overwhelmed with losing that cat, kind of grieving that,” he says, adding that “[she felt] I wasn’t really caring about our cat and even about her.”
Benson told Heather that he felt misunderstood and unappreciated.
“I had done a lot for our cat, and so that was a big thing for me to express,” he says.
Step 2: Share your realities and validate each other
The second step, says Benson, is to listen with intention. You and your partner had two separate experiences during the argument, he says, and you need to understand your partner’s experience rather than only your own.
“One of the things about conflict communication with couples is often the big problem is partners aren’t really listening to each other, and one person is speaking and the other is waiting until their turn to speak, and so you have two monologues going on instead of dialogue,” says Benson.
During this step, you and your partner will take turns acting as listener and speaker, he says.
Speaker: Focus on what you perceived and felt during the argument. Avoid criticizing or blaming the listener.
Listener: Focus on how the speaker experienced the argument, not how you think they should have experienced it. Really try to understand things from their perspective, and validate it. Say things like, “When I see this from your perspective, it makes sense that you felt that way.”
“What that does is it actually slows down the conversation and really helps the listener focus on what their partner is saying rather than interpreting it and bringing in their own personal conversation and dialogue,” he says.
Step 3: Disclose Your Triggers
During this step, while you are taking turns as speaker and listener, each of you should discuss what triggered a strong reaction in you, says Benson.
The couple’s cat used to belong to Heather’s father, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. She explained to him that she felt stressed about having to care for both her father and the cat, and that seeing the cat cry was a big trigger for her.
Benson explained to his girlfriend that when she demanded he stop working and clean the cat’s litter box, that he felt his boundaries were being violated.
“I felt my personal needs weren’t being addressed, and I talked about my boundaries and what I can and cannot do and how to work with that in a relational way with my partner,” he says.
Step 4: Take ownership of your role
During this step, Benson says, you both need to take responsibility for the role you played in the conflict.
“She really apologized for how she talked to me,” he says. “She was critical … and she apologized for that.”
Benson acknowledged to his girlfriend that he shouldn’t have responded defensively.
“I owned up to that,” he says, “and we got to a place where we both accepted each other’s apologies.”
Step 5: Preventative planning
During this step, you’ll both discuss ways to argue about the issue more constructively if it happens again, says Benson. Make “positive, actionable” requests, and avoid criticism, he says.
Benson says he and Heather decided to make time at the end of each day to talk about their feelings.
“We can actually start to talk more about … those emotions in our relationship rather than letting them build and potentially cause other issues like this event,” says Benson.
Benson says that using the aftermath of their fight to repair their relationship helped them understand one another’s perspectives and brought them closer together.
“Underneath a lot of these conflicts — even things that seem really silly —there’s often a lot of feelings and deeper meanings and often couples will argue about the content or what happened or who’s right and who’s wrong, and that often makes things worse,” says Benson. “Whereas when we slow down and try to understand each other’s experiences, we can start to bridge the misunderstanding and actually turn that conflict into material for building a much stronger relationship.”
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