Conflict is inevitable in any relationship, but how couples handle disagreements can make or break their bond. Renowned relationship expert Dr. John Gottman has identified six key skills that can help partners navigate fights more effectively and strengthen their connection in the process. Drawing on decades of research and real-world examples, this article explores these critical skills and offers practical tips for putting them into action.

1. The power of a gentle start-up

When tensions rise, it’s tempting to launch into a conversation with guns blazing. However, research shows that the way a discussion begins is a strong predictor of how it will end.1 Gottman advises using a “soft start-up” – expressing concerns calmly and without blame. For example, instead of saying, “You never help with the dishes,” try, “I’m feeling overwhelmed with housework lately. Can we talk about dividing tasks more evenly?”

2. Soothing your own stress response

In the heat of an argument, our bodies often go into “fight or flight” mode, flooding with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.2 This can make it harder to think clearly and communicate effectively. Gottman recommends practicing physiological self-soothing techniques, such as deep breathing, taking a break, or even splashing cold water on your face, to regain composure before continuing the conversation.

3. The art of repair and de-escalation

Even with the best intentions, discussions can sometimes veer off course. When this happens, Gottman emphasizes the importance of making “repair attempts” – efforts to de-escalate tension and get the interaction back on track.3 This might involve using humor, expressing affection, or simply acknowledging the other person’s perspective. The key is to convey that you’re still a team, even amid disagreement.

4. Listening for underlying feelings

In the thick of a fight, it’s easy to get caught up in surface-level complaints and miss the deeper emotions driving the conflict. Gottman encourages partners to listen for and validate each other’s underlying feelings, such as fear, sadness, or loneliness.4 For instance, a spouse’s criticism about not spending enough time together might stem from a fear of disconnection. Acknowledging and empathizing with these core emotions can help defuse defensiveness and foster greater understanding. After all, this disagreement is important enough for each of you to fight about. This means that the feelings you have are important to you and should be important to the other person, as well.

5. The power of accepting influence

Gottman’s research has found that couples who are willing to accept influence from each other – that is, to take their partner’s opinions and needs into account – tend to have more satisfying and stable relationships.5 This doesn’t mean always giving in, but rather being open to compromise and finding solutions that work for both people. When partners feel heard and respected, they’re more likely to reciprocate and collaborate.

6. Compromise: Meeting in the middle

In any partnership, there will be times when desires and priorities clash. Gottman stresses the value of finding middle ground – not as a begrudging concession, but as a way to honor both individuals’ needs.6 This might involve taking turns, finding creative solutions, or agreeing to disagree on minor issues while maintaining overall unity. The goal is not to “win” the argument, but to strengthen the relationship.


Conflict is a natural part of any relationship, but by learning and practicing these six key skills – gentle start-up, self-soothing, repair attempts, listening for feelings, accepting influence, and compromising – couples can transform fights into opportunities for greater understanding and closeness. As Gottman’s research demonstrates, it’s not about avoiding disagreements altogether, but rather navigating them with empathy, respect, and a commitment to the partnership. With these tools in hand, couples can weather the storms of conflict and emerge stronger on the other side.


  1. Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Three Rivers Press.
  2. Robles, T. F., & Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (2003). The physiology of marriage: pathways to health. Physiology & behavior, 79(3), 409-416.
  3. Driver, J. L., & Gottman, J. M. (2004). Daily marital interactions and positive affect during marital conflict among newlywed couples. Family process, 43(3), 301-314.
  4. Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2000). The timing of divorce: Predicting when a couple will divorce over a 14-year period. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62(3), 737-745.
  5. Gottman, J. M., Coan, J., Carrere, S., & Swanson, C. (1998). Predicting marital happiness and stability from newlywed interactions. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60(1), 5-22.
  6. Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2002). A two‐factor model for predicting when a couple will divorce: Exploratory analyses using 14‐year longitudinal data. Family process, 41(1), 83-96.