Clients sometimes ask me how often it is OK to fight in their relationship. What is normal? This question can come from someone who rarely fights with their partner – or someone who fights often and loudly.
I believe some conflict is inevitable between partners – unless one partner consistently acquiesces to the other — which I don’t recommend! However according to John Gottman, a leading relationship expert, the problem isn’t so much IF you argue, it’s HOW you argue.
In his excellent book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Gottman points out that couples have many different styles of conflict resolution – the key is whether or not the style works for both people.
Characteristics that lead to divorce
For many years, Dr. Gottman has been studying the behavior of married couples in his “Love Lab” – an apartment in Seattle that is outfitted with cameras and recording equipment. Couples are invited to stay in this apartment and their daily interactions are filmed and then studied. (And no, they don’t film in the bedroom.)
Here’s what I found amazing! From watching and listening to a couple argue for as little as 5 minutes, Gottman can predict (with 91% accuracy in three studies) whether or not that couple will split up.
His predictions are based on the information he has gathered over many years of observing and analyzing how couples interact – and then following which couples stay together and which couples divorce. Gottman doesn’t claim to be psychic – rather he says he has learned (through observation) the key ingredients in the marriages that last and in those that fail.
Gottman goes on to identify characteristic ways that couples argue, which are most likely to lead to divorce. These include such things as criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stone-walling (refusing to engage). All four have a corrosive effect on a relationship. However the very first sign that a conversation has gotten off on the wrong foot can be found in what Gottman calls a “harsh start-up.”
Getting off on the wrong foot
The harsh start-up refers to the manner in which you initiate a conversation with your partner about something that concerns or bothers you. Embedded in a harsh start-up is a criticism or negative judgement.
Let’s take this common example: Your partner frequently leaves his/her dirty clothes on the bathroom floor after showering. You are tired of picking up after him/her and you’ve decided it’s time to say something. Imagine the reaction if you start the conversation with this harsh start-up:
“You’re such a slob! I’m sick of you never picking up your dirty clothes!”
Can you visualize how negatively your partner might respond to such an opener? Now imagine if you started the conversation in a more emotionally neutral way:
“Honey, I’d like to talk about these dirty clothes on the floor.”
In this second instance, the ensuing conversation would be much more likely to end well.
Here’s another example of a harsh-start-up, after one partner has been kept waiting by another:
“You’re always so inconsiderate – I’ve been waiting here for over an hour!”
In contrast, a less provocative opener might be:
“I’m exhausted with waiting… What happened?”
If one partner starts off a conversation with accusations and blame, the other partner is likely to react in kind — and the argument is off and running. A positive resolution is unlikely to be found to any argument begun harshly. (And just in case you think it’s all about the words, think again! A critical tone can turn the most innocent sounding words into an blaming accusation.)
How to avoid the “harsh start-up”
If you have a tendency to start conversations in a harsh manner, the following strategies will help:
1. Cool off before you speak.
Harsh start-up’s are most likely to occur in the heat of the moment, when your partner’s behavior has triggered sudden, strong emotions in you, such as anger, hurt or fear. This is the time to take a deep breath and step back from the situation. If you can’t respond in a reasonable manner, then refrain until you can. In the meantime — breathe. That will help your heart rate return to normal.
You may need time to identify your feelings and exactly what you are upset about. Not everything needs to be resolved the moment it occurs. Sometimes it can be most helpful to take some time to cool down and identify what you’re feeling, before you speak.
2. Stick to “I” statements.
If you simply must say something, then stick to statements about yourself. For example:
“I’m feeling really upset!”
“Oooh, I’m so frustrated.”
“Ouch, that hurts.”
When something happens to upset you, it is easy to blame the other person for your upset. It is also tempting to ascribe to the other person an intention to do you harm.
Casting aspersions on the character or intent of your partner will escalate the situation and invite a defensive response. Sticking to “I” statements will give your emotions a name (thereby relieving them) and prevent you from devolving into name-calling and accusations.
3. Translate your complaint into a request.
This is the most effective strategy and most likely to bring favorable results. Rather than criticize or complain about the situation, simply make a request. Don’t assume that your partner knows what bothers you – and don’t punish him/her for breaking a promise which they may never have made.
Returning to our original example, you might simply ask your partner: “Honey, could you put your dirty clothes in the laundry basket after you shower?” You might be amazed at how well a direct request, minus recriminations, can actually work!
Try a kinder, gentler approach
Raise your awareness regarding HOW you initiate conversations when you have an issue or concern. By avoiding a harsh start-up, you will give the conversation a “fighting chance” of resolving well.
Invitation to action
Observe your own tendencies to use criticism or sarcasm, when you have an issue with your partner (or your child or your co-worker). Pick one of the strategies above and try it the next time you have a “beef” with someone. Notice if you get a more receptive response when you refrain from using a harsh start-up.