Dr. Gottman reminds us that couples who work well adopt the motto, “If you’re hurting baby, the world stops, and I listen. I’m with you.”
But this brings up another problem. If all we have to do is respond to our partner’s calls for attention and connection with care, then why do we fight so poorly?
We are often unresponsive not because we don’t care, but because we are caught up in our private worlds. As Dr. Gottman reminds us, we often turn away out of “mindlessness, not malice.”
In Dr. Gottman’s Mathematical Proof he argues that partners are ready and able to listen with an open heart about 30% of the time. This means both partners being emotionally available at the same time only happens 9% of the time, leaving 91% of your relationship ripe for misunderstanding and conflict.
Instead of expecting communication to be easy, we should expect miscommunication and conflict to occur with some regularity. With this in mind, we need a way to deal with these issues when we hurt our partner or they hurt us in a gentle, supporting, and caring way.
It’s Not What You Fight About, It’s How
Dr. Gottman’s research highlights that couples who have more positive interactions (humor and affection) during the conflict have a healthier relationship.
Clearly, these laughing and hand-holding couples don’t fight about the same things as you, right?
Happy couples fight about the same issues as unhappy couples, such as money, chores, sex, etc.
The problem is not what you fight about, it’s how you fight.
Couples divorce in less than 6 years when Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling become habitual ways of communicating.
Dr. Sue Johnson argues that hostility, criticism, and demands are really crying for emotional connection. Unfortunately, this style of fighting disconnects couples, rather than reconnects them.
The study of 168 couples uncovered that it’s not the negativity that undermines a relationship initially. Even happy couples can be and are negative, but the difference is more affection and emotional support. Five times more to be specific.
That’s why as a lover, you need to learn how to express yourself without attacking your partner and how to listen without becoming defensive. When you do this, you and your partner can use conflict as a catalyst for connection.
One of the best responses to a complaint is, “You seem upset about this. Tell me why this is important so we can make things right.”
This “we”-focused attitude creates a strong bond. Thousands of research studies on attachment theory discovered that a responsive and accepting lover is the foundation of a secure relationship.
Fighting for Connection
We reach for connection in conflict
When conflict arises in a relationship, it is actually an attempt to reconnect you, to bring you back into sync with each other.
How could my partner’s harsh comments be an attempt to reconnect with me? If they wanted to connect with me, they’d just ask.
What happened when you felt unheard of by your partner? Did you get angry? Distance yourself? Or did you calmly tell your partner why this issue is important to you?
Like you, your partner is not nasty; they’re scared. Underneath nasty fights are deep insecurities of being abandoned, rejected, controlled, or manipulated. Rather than disclose these vulnerabilities, people attempt to protect them by blaming and attacking others.
As Dr. Sue Johnson highlights, underneath the distress, partners are asking each other:
- Can I depend on you to be there for me?
- Will you respond when I need you most?
- Do you value and accept me as I am?
- Do you need me? Will you depend on me?
Underneath hurtful words is something deeply meaningful. It’s only when your partner feels safe that they can reveal these vulnerabilities. When you respond in a way that offers care and support, they tend to show their deepest fears.