Maybe you should fight with your spouse more.
I can imagine the reactions to that sentence: “Oh, we got more than enough of that already. All stocked up here, thanks!” Well, I’m joking…
Kinda. Truth is, research shows fighting can be a good thing.
…we found that couples who fought were less satisfied with their marriages than those who described their interactions as peaceful. But when we checked on these couples three years later, we found the situation had reversed. Those who did not fight earlier on were less likely to have maintained stable marriages than those who were more confrontational. The originally “happy” couples were more likely to be on the trajectory toward divorce, or even be divorced, than the others… Rather than being destructive, occasional anger can be a resource that helps the marriage improve over time.
Point is, communication is vital. So occasional fighting is better than no communication at all. Turns out it’s how you argue that makes the difference between a downward spiral and an upward spiral. Divorce isn’t usually caused by a single spectacular threat; it’s caused by letting minor fights become overly hostile which slowly poisons your perspective on your partner and the relationship. So we’re gonna learn the science of fighting right.
Yes, a lot lot lot has been written on the internet about helping marriages; so why read this? Because Gottman explicitly says the four things below will get you 75% of the way to a happy marriage. Now there’s a Black Friday deal if I ever saw one.
Oh, and maybe you’re asking who this Gottman guy is? Professor John Gottman, PhD is the leading marriage researcher, bar none, that’s it, game over. He can read data like others read tea leaves.
In one study, for example, we were able to foretell with an astonishing 94 percent accuracy which couples were headed for divorce three years later, based solely on couples’ views of their marital history and their current perceptions.
Let’s get to work…
1) Calm Down
A pile of data so large that you would not want to drop it on your foot confirms something that will not surprise you: conversations go to hell when heart rates soar. If you stay out of the emotional Red Zone, you say far fewer regrettable things.
Yes, this sounds obvious but almost nobody monitors their stress level during a fight and proactively tries to reduce it. Males are far more likely to get worked up and stay worked up during an argument and this turns skirmishes into bloodbaths. (And before you gentlemen send me any ALL CAPS emails, relax. We’ll get to the problems women disproportionately cause later.)
Calming down is especially important for men, since as we know, they are more likely to feel physiologically overwhelmed sooner than women during a heated marital exchange. And it takes less intense negativity for men to get physiologically overwhelmed. Also, men are more likely to rehearse destructive, innocent-victim or vengeful thoughts once they feel flooded
Both of you should agree in advance to comply immediately if either of you calls a time-out during a fight. Add in any other Geneva Convention rules for arguments in your relationship that you feel you two need. We’re not allowing the use of chemical weapons in the living room; they stain the carpet.
During an argument, the first step is just keeping an eye on your stress level. Err on the side of being conservative and call a time-out before you launch into the greatest speech you will ever regret. Go for a walk. Go in the other room and listen to music.
But the most important part of that break is cooling your inner monologue. No dwelling on the negative and ruminating. Letting those negative thoughts sour your perception of your spouse is the destructive process that kills marriages over time. Again, men have a much bigger problem with this and need to make a more concerted effort. Do not spend the break thinking: “I’m not going to take this anymore.” or “All the things I do, and I never get recognized or appreciated.” Replace those with: “He’s (she’s) upset right now, but this isn’t a personal attack.” or “This is a bad moment, but things aren’t always like this.”
How long a break? Most people guess 5 minutes. They’re wrong. Physiological data shows the median is closer to 20. When most people think they have calmed down, their heart rates are still 10% above normal. (Yes, Gottman actually had people hooked up to heart monitors.)
And heading back into an argument before you’re truly calm is very bad because of the “Zillmann Transfer of Excitation Effect.” (I swear I don’t make these names up. Call it the “Flux Capacitor” if you prefer.) When physiologically aroused, you’re more likely to involuntarily mirror emotions you’re exposed to. Only when you’re fully calm will you really be able to prevent further escalation of negative emotions. Otherwise you’re in for 1.21 giggawatts of grief, Marty McFly.
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Okay, you’re calm. This goes a long way toward improving things. But you’re going to have to open your mouth and your partner is going to open theirs, and this is what often leads to problems, arguments and someone sleeping on the couch.
What’s the best way to talk so that future communication is not done through attorneys?
2) Speak Non-defensively
Defensiveness is Miracle-Gro for arguments. In fact, according to Gottman’s research, it’s one of the four key things that kills marriages. Yes, it’s that serious.
By the same token, if nobody gets defensive, it’s very hard for an argument to escalate. So listen attentively, don’t respond to accusations with more accusations, and don’t deflect blame. If you can do that, your conventional war is unlikely to go nuclear, resulting in MMAD: Marital Mutually Assured Destruction.
I’m not gonna lie to you: this is hard. Really hard. (I said this post was the “simple” way, not necessarily the “easy” way. FYI: there is no easy way.) Controlling yourself while arguing is especially hard if you’ve spent the past month dwelling on everything your spouse does wrong, transforming the story of your marriage from “The Love of My Life” to “The End of Days.”
But there is a trick to getting better at it. You wouldn’t step into a UFC fight without months in training camp. So you’re going to training camp for this fight — but the preparation is decidedly less violent. Quite the opposite, in fact. You’re not improving cardio, you’re pumping your praise and admiration muscles.
The single most important tactic for short-circuiting defensive communication is to choose to have a positive mindset about your spouse and to reintroduce praise and admiration into your relationship.
And don’t just think it, take time to do it. If things have been difficult in your marriage, you need to rewrite that relationship “inner script” — perhaps literally. Scribble down your partner’s positive qualities. Look at old photos and correspondence. Make a gratitude list of all the amazing things your partner has done for you. All the things you probably take for granted.
Those praise and admiration muscles? Flex them. Sincere compliments and thank you’s now lessen hostility later. Politeness, praise, and gratitude are some of the first casualties of marriage. If things have been rough lately, that first compliment out of the blue might be met with cynical suspicion. Don’t give up.
Okay, time for the main event. The key to being nondefensive during an argument is to perceive your spouse’s words not as an attack, but as information. Don’t see negativity as cruelty; anger is just emphasis.
See all feelings as legitimate. You don’t have to agree with them but at the bare minimum, you need to acknowledge you heard them and are attempting to understand.
Just saying, “Uh-huh, go ahead, I’m listening,” or “I can see why you’d feel that way,” or “It makes sense that you’d feel that way,” or even a periodic “Yeah,” can communicate that you’re trying to understand even if you don’t necessarily have the same point of view. Just acknowledging that perhaps two points of view exist, and that both have some validity, is a powerful form of acceptance. The most powerful form of nondefensive listening is to genuinely feel what your partner is feeling and communicate that empathic response.
When your partner makes an accusation, don’t deny responsibility, make excuses or respond with the dreaded “Yes, but…” Body language matters too: no eye-rolling. No mockery or contempt or anything they would be likely to interpret as such. Remember: it’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.
And when you’re raising an issue, don’t blame. Emphasize feelings. Talk concretely about what actually occurred. An effective formula to raise an issue with is, “When you did X in situation Y, I felt Z.”
Do not let complaints become criticism. Ladies, research shows this is your preferred method for throwing kerosene on the campfire. Just as guys have a harder time calming down and not ruminating, women tend to attribute problem behavior to global personality traits with unnecessary phrasing like “You always ____” and “You’re the kind of person who _____.” No Bueno. This turns “you did a bad thing” into “you are a bad person.” Being dissatisfied with someone’s actions is fine but implying they’re a lousy human being is like a prison bus: it will not get you anywhere you want to go.
If you truly do think they’re an incorrigibly bad person, end it now. If you’re not willing to do that, then they should be seen as “a good person who did a bad thing.” As Gottman says, “One of the great paradoxes in therapy is that people don’t change unless they feel accepted as they are.” If you attack, they attack back. But if you accept people, they listen.
And showing admiration is even better. Admiration is the opposite of contempt. It not only shows someone you accept them but that you respect and value them. This makes people want to be better.
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
You’re not losing your cool. You’re not being defensive. And not doing those things is most likely improving your partner’s behavior as well. But what do you need to do more of?
Plain and simple: make them feel that they are emotionally understood and that their concern has some validity. Most of us don’t do this because we’re not calm, we’re speaking defensively, and we’re too focused on “winning” to tell our partner that they may actually have a point.
Bare minimum validation? Sincerely say, “Yes, I know that upsets you” or “Yes, I realize that is important to you.” Even this little crumb can work wonders. And whatever you do, resist the urge to follow it up with anything suggesting that their concerns are unwarranted. Just say “Yes, I know that upsets you” and shut your problematic mouth for a second. You don’t have to respect the opinion but you do have to respect the person. Let them know their concerns are meaningful to you.
And if you realize they really do have a point, by all means, take responsibility and apologize. (If you’re the type who never admits they’re wrong, I suggest learning CPR before doing this.) If you want extra points, give them a compliment, and show admiration that they brought the issue up. This makes it more likely future conversations will go better.
Now if you think their complaints are totally bonkers and you can’t at all see where they’re coming from, at the very least convey that you are trying. Don’t fake it or be insincere but make an effort. Respond with “Right now, I’m just taking in what you’re saying and attempting to understand how you feel.”
Research has clearly demonstrated that when you validate your spouse, you’re helping to keep your blood pressure down and your heart rate from skyrocketing. In one study of newlyweds I found that adrenaline secretions decreased during a conversation if a couple were validating and positive toward each other. But couples who were not validating tended to secrete more and more adrenaline as their conversation progressed— and their tension rose.
(To learn how to deal with passive-aggressive people, click here.)
Calm, nondefensive and validating. That’s really all you need. But number four makes sure that this isn’t just another thing you casually read on the internet and that you actually use it when it matters…
Simply put: practice. Reading Kung Fu books on the couch will not make you Bruce Lee and reading this post twice will not make your marriage great. You can’t just have an intellectual understanding of these ideas; they need to be second nature.
If you have to think to do the above three, you aren’t there yet. If you can’t do them when you’re angry, scared, or upset, they’re useless when someone is reciting a litany of your character defects at 130 decibels.
So practice these skills in advance, outside of the relationship. If you know you’re headed into something stressful, make it a goal to stay calm. Practice nondefensive listening at work. Validate the customer service person next time you call a support line.
Building these habits won’t just improve your marriage — they’ll improve your entire life.
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
Okay, time to round it all up, and learn the most powerful way to improve your marriage when you’re not fighting…
This is the simple way to an awesome marriage:
- Calm down: Monitor your stress level and ask for a break if you need one. And don’t negatively ruminate or you’re gonna go all flux capacitor on your spouse.
- Speak nondefensively: Marital Sun Tzu: “All battles about household chores are won or lost before they are ever fought.” Go in with an attitude of praise and admiration. If the argument starts with you already convinced they’re demon spawn, don’t be surprised when it doesn’t end well.
- Validate: Nobody likes to be treated like a crazy person. (Even crazy people don’t like being treated like crazy people.) Until they feel you understand them and take their concerns seriously, nothing good will happen.
- Overlearn: Communication skills are not Harry Potter books. They’re not something you simply casually read about; they are something you need to practice.
Entropy isn’t just for physics class. It affects marriages as well. I’ll skip the extended lecture on thermodynamics and say that Gottman’s research showed if you don’t actively try and keep your marriage good, it’s gonna get worse. Flourishing marriages do not happen on autopilot.
Gottman said that you can get 75% of the way to a happy marriage by doing the above four things to reduce the negatives. So what’s the other 25%?
Boosting the positive. Merely gauging the ratio of bad to good was what allowed Gottman to predict divorce so accurately. Five good things for every one negative meant a stable marriage. Yes, it’s really that simple.
As part of our research we carefully charted the amount of time couples spent fighting versus interacting positively— touching, smiling, paying compliments, laughing, etc. Across the board we found there was a very specific ratio that exists between the amount of positivity and negativity in a stable marriage, whether it is marked by validation, volatility, or conflict avoidance. That magic ratio is 5 to 1. In other words, as long as there is five times as much positive feeling and interaction between husband and wife as there is negative, we found the marriage was likely to be stable.
Love is a verb, not a noun. In the end, it isn’t something you have, you say, or you feel. It’s something you do.
When you fight, fight right. But other than that — and this is doctor’s orders:
Celebrate the one you love five times as much.