Righteous fights

How disagreeing doesn’t have to destroy relationships

Illustration By Frank Harris

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To learn more about John Gottman’s study, check out This American Life‘s “Episode 261: The Sanctity of Marriage” at www.thislife.org. For further information, visit www.smartmarriages.com.

Everyone has heard the statistic about 50 percent of marriages ending in divorce, but only recently scientists have begun conducting long-term studies on why some marriages are stable while others fall apart. It turns out that one of the biggest indicators of a happy marriage is how couples fight.

A leading researcher in this area is Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist with the University of Washington. Since 1973, Gottman and his team have been videotaping how couples talk in order to look for patterns as to what makes a marriage work. Because of his study, psychologists can predict the future of a marriage, whether a couple will divorce within 10 years or whether they will stay together, with 97.5 percent accuracy. Gottman found that there are several key behaviors that can make or break a wedding bond.

While all couples argue, there are four types of negative behavior that are especially harmful in a relationship, Gottman writes in his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. He calls these “the four horsemen of the apocalypse": criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt. Of the four, contempt is the biggest death sentence for a happy relationship.

Gottman found that stable couples had a system of “repairs” that prevented the fight from escalating. An example of a repair is when someone softens a complaint so it doesn’t sound as harsh, or says something soothing, makes a joke to release tension, or comments on the communication itself.

In addition, he found a ratio between the positive and the negative feedback: It takes at least five repairs to mend damage done by one apocalyptic horseman.

Essentially, the couples that stayed together, and stayed happy, were those who constantly re-affirmed their love, especially in the midst of a disagreement. Stable couples were the ones who joked, showed affection and supported each other even during conflicts.

Not everyone was born knowing how to fight like a Care Bear, so for many couples the best way to learn “fair fighting” techniques is through therapy.

Christopher Parker, a marriage and family therapist in Chico, teaches couples how to express differences in perspective without hurting their relationship. There are three parts to having a “healthy disagreement,” he said.

The first part is to cause no harm. The signal to disengage is any time hurtful things are said. Take a time-out and come back later, change the subject and talk about something pleasant—anything to diffuse the situation.

The second part is to take responsibility for your own feelings. Search for the cause of the anger—and it isn’t because your partner forgot to screw the cap onto the toothpaste. In order to take responsibility for yourself you need to shift the focus away from blaming the other person to becoming “curious about why your feelings are so strong,” Parker said.

Finding the root of a feeling is a common theme in therapy, said Shannon Sheridan, another Chico-based therapist who specializes in counseling couples.

Anger often stems from feelings of inadequacy, Sheridan said. Men feel like it doesn’t matter what they do, it’s never going to be enough, and women feel they aren’t loveable or worthy enough. Like an injured pet that bites its owner, these fears can cause people to lash out at their partners.

This is why it’s so critical for people to assume ownership of their feelings and be able to articulate them without putting their loved ones on the defensive.

The third part of having a healthy disagreement, according to Parker, is to practice reflective listening, or “mirroring,” which is when one person repeats back what the other person said.

This technique forces people to hear their partner’s side. It is an acknowledgement that what the other person says is valid and is a way of honoring that the other person has a different reality.

Most important, Sheridan likes to have her couples focus on the positive aspects of each other.

“If there are two wonderful things about a person and 20 awful things, yet you choose to focus on the two wonderful things then your relationship can thrive,” Sheridan said. However, if they switch it around and the couple chooses to focus on the negative things, “it’s enough to take you down.”