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New pandemic rules: When you are right and everyone else is wrong

Although the easing of restrictions is welcome, it's given rise to a new challenge for those living with others. How do you handle conflict when you and your partner or flatmates differ on how to interpret the new rules?

John Gottman, professor emeritus at the University of Washington and co-founder of the Gottman Institute, has studied relationships for more than 40 years. One approach he uses is to ask couples to engage in a 15-minute conversation to resolve a conflict presented by one of them.

Interviews were videotaped, and exchanges later coded for negative emotions such anger, contempt and fear/tension, and positive expressions such as affection, joy and humour.

Avoid criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and most of all, contempt when dealing with others in your space.

Avoid criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and most of all, contempt when dealing with others in your space.

What can we learn from these and related studies to help those living together when facing this new and unprecedented challenge?

1. Talk regularly, but not face to face or amid distractions. Set aside time once — or better, twice — a week to talk about exactly what "easing" means to each household member. Twenty to 30 minutes is ideal. If you have children, wait until they're in bed. Turn off phones and screens, but if possible, discuss while doing something that avoids face-to-face interaction, such as taking a walk or washing up. Looking at one another directly is more likely to trigger aggression and defensiveness; moving about diffuses anxiety.

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2. Listen fully and pick up signs of distress. Simply showing you've noticed emotional discomfort avoids escalation, and means the other person feels reassured you care about how they're feeling.

3. Frame comments, suggestions — even complaints if possible — in positive terms: Gottman and Robert Levenson looked at differences in emotional tone between heterosexual and same-sex couples. Same-sex couples, who generally resolved conflict more amicably, tended both to present differences and respond to them in more positive terms and to show more positive emotions.

4. Strive for equality. Gottman and Levenson also found same-sex couples maintained equal respect for one another's views more often. They suggest this may be because there are fewer implicit biases about who's "in charge" in same-sex relationships. Try not to assume you know "better".

5. Avoid negativity. Gottman has found the most toxic responses are those that show criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and most of all, contempt. Avoid them.

6. Expect to compromise. If each of you feels confident their suggestions will be considered thoughtfully, you'll be more likely to find one solution (among many) that suits everyone well enough.

7. Compliment more than criticise. Gottman suggests offering five positive suggestions and/or compliments for every negative comment.

8. Be quick to repair. If you sense negativity escalating, say or do something to defuse the situation. Gottman refers to this as "repairing".

9. Keep talking. Everything is changing, so talk regularly, prioritising honesty and kindness.

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