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It’s rare a relationship is completely free from conflict. Military couples in particular face unique stressors. Helpful relationship support equips you with healthy ways to handle the disagreements that are bound to happen.
In a five-part Relationship Real Talk video series, psychologist Dr. Kelly Blasko with the Defense Health Agency, and Kelly Smith, LCSW, from Military Community Support Programs, discuss four conflict styles that can hinder healthy communication in a relationship. These behaviors can cause lasting harm and drive couples apart. Dr. Blasko, a counseling psychologist who has Level 1 and 2 training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy, uses this highly regarded model in her clinical work. In this series, she offers relationship support to help you recognize and manage your reactions, improve your communication skills and bring you closer as a couple.
Four conflict styles to look out for
Four common behaviors that get in the way of healthy communication are:
- Criticism – Berating your partner’s personality or character verbally
- Contempt – Attacking your partner’s sense of self with the intent to insult or abuse
- Defensiveness – Victimizing yourself to ward off a perceived attack and reversing the blame
- Stonewalling – Withdrawing to avoid conflict and convey disapproval, distance and separation
These conflict styles close off healthy debate rather than guide you and your partner toward a solution. Over time, they can erode trust in each other and damage your relationship.
Hear more about how to spot these behaviors and learn some tips for handling yourself in the heat of the moment.
Being accused of wrongdoing can bring up many different emotions, including hurt, anger and shame. These naturally lead to defensiveness. You may shift the blame or act as though you didn’t do anything wrong. But becoming defensive tells your partner their feelings don’t matter.
Instead of becoming defensive, do the following:
- Notice how you feel. Acknowledge any negative emotions without acting on them. Instead, focus on your partner’s concern.
- Delve into the issue. Ask your partner to tell you more about why they’re upset. There may be other concerns that you’re unaware of. For example, if your partner is upset that you bought concert tickets, they may be worried about an upcoming car repair.
- Take responsibility for your actions. Accept your partner’s perspective and apologize when you’re in the wrong.
Get expert tips for admitting to mistakes, taking responsibility and offering an apology — all essential parts of relationship maintenance and growth.
One of the most destructive behaviors in a relationship is treating your partner with disrespect. The Gottman Institute’s research shows that contempt in a relationship is the biggest predictor of divorce or separation. Examples of contempt include:
- Mocking in a sarcastic or condescending manner
- Calling names meant to demean or belittle
- Rolling your eyes or sneering
- Giving the silent treatment
To banish contempt from your relationship, find ways to reconnect.
- Remember what you like – and love – about your partner. Focus on the qualities that attracted you to your partner.
- State your needs. Do this without blaming or accusing your partner, so you can have a constructive dialogue.
- Rebuild appreciation for one another. Acknowledge and thank your partner for their big and small contributions to the relationship, whether that’s supporting the family financially, taking care of the children or bringing the trash out each week.
- Create rituals. Take a walk together after work, text each other at a certain time of the day, eat a meal together every day. Rituals reinforce bonds and bring couples closer.
Get relationship support on how to curb contempt and build a more appreciative, open and respectful dynamic in your relationship.
Criticism can damage a relationship when it’s directed at the person rather than on how their actions made the other one feel. It can lead to defensiveness, pitting you and your partner against one another in a cycle of blame and defense.
You can break that negative cycle in the following ways:
- Take a step back when you feel critical of your partner. Think about how their actions make you feel and ask yourself what you need from your partner.
- Express your feelings using “I” statements and frame your need in a positive way. For example, “I feel frustrated and worried when you don’t answer my text messages. Is there a better time of day to text you?”
- Ask for your partner’s input. There may be a reason behind your partner’s actions that you’re not aware of. Talking about the issue can lead to a solution.
Learn techniques to pull back on criticism and phrase requests in a positive way. Communicating your wants and needs without negativity is an important way to protect your bond and make love last.
Stonewalling is the most common of the four conflict styles. It’s when one partner feels overwhelmed by negative emotions during a conflict, so shuts down. They may leave the room or go silent.
Stonewalling closes off the connection between couples, making it harder to work through a disagreement. Some ways to break the pattern of stonewalling include:
- Recognize what’s happening. Check in with your feelings before you shut down.
- Manage your stress. Take deep breaths. Ask for a moment to collect yourself. Reset with a walk or other activity that you find calming. Be sure to return to the conversation.
- Ask your partner how you can help them return to the conversation, if you notice your partner is stonewalling you.
Learn about stonewalling and how to close the distance that can creep in during a disagreement. Get expert tips you can use to self-calm and re-center while staying close to your partner.
Additional resources for couples
For more resources, tools and support for military couples like you, visit Re the We on Military OneSource. You’ll find helpful resources for every stage of your relationship.
If you feel you and your partner need additional support, non-medical counseling can help. Free, confidential non-medical counseling is available through your installation’s Military and Family Life Counseling program and through Military OneSource. Call 800-342-9647 or live chat to schedule an appointment with a non-medical counselor or to learn more. OCONUS? View international calling options.