8. Get Good At Fighting.
“The relationship is a living, breathing thing. Much like the body and muscles, it cannot get stronger without stress and challenge. You have to fight. You have to hash things out. Obstacles make the marriage.” – Ryan Saplan
John Gottman is a hot-shit psychologist and researcher who has spent over 30 years analyzing married couples and looking for keys to why they stick together and why they break up. Chances are if you’ve read any relationship advice article before, you’ve either directly or indirectly been exposed to his work. When it comes to, “Why do people stick together?” he dominates the field.
What Gottman does is he gets married couples in a room, puts some cameras on them, and then he asks them to have a fight.
Notice: he doesn’t ask them to talk about how great the other person is. He doesn’t ask them what they like best about their relationship.
He asks them to fight. Pick something they’re having problems with and talk about it for the camera. And from simply analyzing the film for the couple’s discussion (or shouting match, whatever), he’s able to predict with startling accuracy whether a couple will divorce or not.
But what’s most interesting about Gottman’s research is that the things that lead to divorce are not necessarily what you think. Successful couples, like unsuccessful couples, he found, fight consistently. And some of them fight furiously.
He has been able to narrow down four characteristics of a couple that tend to lead to divorces (or breakups). He has gone on and called these “the four horsemen” of the relationship apocalypse in his books. They are:
1. Criticizing your partner’s character (“You’re so stupid” vs “That thing you did was stupid.”)
2. Defensiveness (or basically, blame-shifting, “I wouldn’t have done that if you weren’t late all the time.”)
3. Contempt (putting down your partner and making them feel inferior.)
4. Stonewalling (withdrawing from an argument and ignoring your partner.)
The reader emails back this up as well. Out of the 1,500-some-odd emails, almost every single one referenced the importance of dealing with conflicts well.
Advice given by readers included:
– Never insult or name-call your partner. Put another way: hate the sin, love the sinner. Gottman’s research found that “contempt” — belittling and demeaning your partner — is the number one predictor of divorce.
– Do not bring previous fights/arguments into current ones. This solves nothing and just makes the fight twice as bad as it was before. Yeah, you forgot to pick up groceries on the way home, but what does him being rude to your mother last Thanksgiving have to do with anything?
– If things get too heated, take a breather. Remove yourself from the situation and come back once emotions have cooled off a bit. This is a big one for me personally, sometimes when things get intense with my wife, I get overwhelmed and just leave for a while. I usually walk around the block 2-3 times and let myself seeth for about 15 minutes. Then I come back and we’re both a bit calmer and we can resume the discussion with a much more conciliatory tone.
Remember that being “right” is not as important as both people feeling respected and heard. You may be right, but if you are right in such a way that makes your partner feel unloved, then there’s no real winner.
But all of this takes for granted another important point: be willing to fight in the first place.
I think when people talk about the necessity for “good communication” all of the time (a vague piece of advice that everyone says but few people seem to actually clarify what it means), this is what they mean: be willing to have the uncomfortable talks. Be willing to have the fights. Say the ugly things and get it all out in the open.
This was a constant theme from the divorced readers. Dozens (hundreds?) of them had more or less the same sad story to tell:
“But there’s no way on God’s Green Earth this is her fault alone. There were times when I saw huge red flags. Instead of trying to figure out what in the world was wrong, I just plowed ahead. I’d buy more flowers, or candy, or do more chores around the house. I was a “good” husband in every sense of the word. But what I wasn’t doing was paying attention to the right things. She wasn’t telling me there wasn’t a problem but there was. And instead of saying something, I ignored all of the signals.” – Jim
9. Get Good At Forgiving.
“When you end up being right about something – shut up. You can be right and be quiet at the same time. Your partner will already know you’re right and will feel loved knowing that you didn’t wield it like a bastard sword.” – Brian
“In marriage, there’s no such thing as winning an argument.” – Bill
To me, perhaps the most interesting nugget from Gottman’s research is the fact that most successful couples don’t actually resolve all of their problems. In fact, his findings were completely backwards from what most people actually expect: people in lasting and happy relationships have problems that never completely go away, while couples that feel as though they need to agree and compromise on everything end up feeling miserable and falling apart.
To me, like everything else, this comes back to the respect thing. If you have two different individuals sharing a life together, it’s inevitable that they will have different values and perspectives on some things and clash over it. The key here is not changing the other person — as the desire to change your partner is inherently disrespectful (to both them and yourself) — but rather it’s to simply abide by the difference, love them despite it, and when things get a little rough around the edges, to forgive them for it.
“Everyone says that compromise is key, but that’s not how my husband and I see it. It’s more about seeking understanding. Compromise is bullshit, because it leaves both sides unsatisfied, losing little pieces of themselves in an effort to get along. On the other hand, refusing to compromise is just as much of a disaster, because you turn your partner into a competitor (“I win, you lose”).
These are the wrong goals because they’re outcome-based rather than process-based. When your goal is to find out where your partner is coming from – to truly understand on a deep level – you can’t help but be altered by the process. Conflict becomes much easier to navigate because you see more of the context.” – Michelle