Couples argue over many issues: money, sex, child rearing, time, etc. The problem for so many marriages is not that they argue, but instead that they fight without resolving anything. These disagreements take on a downward spiraling course, sometimes going on for hours. Dr. John M. Gottman (www.gottman.com) calls the “getting stuck” pattern GRIDLOCK. The husband and wife find themselves almost solving the “issue” but then start right back up again. The words become angrier, they become defensive, they begin to ignore each other, and eventually one of them ends the fight by distancing. Enough of these types of fights, and the couple becomes distant and lonely, setting the stage for possible infidelity.
How can love turn into such animosity?
One reason stems from the failure of couples to understand the core reason for the fights. If arguments truly stemmed from the issues (money, sex, etc.), simply creating a problem-solving strategy would be the solution be enough. But, psychologists know, from research, that seldom do couples fight their way into despair because they lack problem solving strategies. Instead, the gridlocked couples become stuck because they fight differently: there’s a mismatch in the way they argue. The mismatch leads to a failure to understand each other. Each one simply doesn’t get the other one’s perspective.
There are three basic styles, according to Gottman:
1) those who want to sit down, compromise, and get back to being comfortable with each other
2) those who want to be heard immediately and have the other person agree with them, and
3) those that have no interest in dealing with problems.
When couples find themselves mismatched, the arguments gridlock largely because of the differences in style. They argue over the way to fight, and destructive patterns set-in.
How to Love Through Fighting: Three key steps can move the couple from gridlocked arguments to deeper love through fighting.
The first is softening up the approach. When the folks at the Gottman lab researched happy and satisfied couples, they found many who fought. When fighting, however, the couple used soft words to express disagreement. They incorporated ideas about what the other person might be feeling, and expressed their own feelings in an open manner. Couples who find love at the end of an argument start with a softened tone.
Second, couples can make fighting work for them if they remember to turn toward, not away, from each other. Sometimes one of them must acknowledge responsibility for being harsh. Other times the couple asks questions of each other—real questions, not the kind which are meant as an accusation. The idea is to care about what the other person is saying and feeling, and express the concern through non-defensively engaging each other.
Third, couples can build a better understanding of each other through discovering underlying meanings. When we gridlock, feelings seem to grow much larger than the issue in the argument. Happy couples search for the reason for such intensity, beyond the issue at hand. They look to understand what the argument or the issue means to their partner. Sometimes they find an echo of past hurts from years ago. Or, perhaps the argument symbolizes a deeper truth. By searching for the dreams and meanings represented in the fight, the couple can unpack deeper truths about each other, and build a stronger sense of being known in the marriage.
The Final Word
Popular culture tells us that fighting harms relationships. The research says otherwise. The research tells us that harmful patterns of fighting hurt marriages, but healthy arguing makes couples closer. The trick is to commit to wanting to know everything you can about WHY each other are so passionate about an issue. We win any fight when we remember to love, even when we hurt, and to use our affection to learn from every disagreement.