How many marriages in the world are conflict free? The real answer is ZERO. Conflict is a natural part of life and there is nothing wrong with that. Each person comes to a marriage from a unique background with unique ideas and opinions; eventually a difference of opinion is going to surface. The big difference in happy versus unhappy marriage is in how a couple handles conflict.
Dr. John Gottman says that the women in a relationship are the most likely to bring up an issue that needs to be discussed. It is important how an issue is brought up because “It is harder for a man’s body to calm down after an argument than a woman’s.” (1999) In other words, bringing up an issue just to start a fight is going to backfire; no one will walk away happy, so ladies, listen up. Gottman goes into more detail here about the difference between a harsh start-up (One of the four horsemen, Week 3) and soft startups. He says, “… I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to the fate of your marriage to soften up. Remember: if you go straight for the jugular, you’re going to draw plenty of blood.” (1999)
Harsh start-ups often start with criticism, blaming, and contempt. These Harsh startups usually begin with a “you” statement. “You did this wrong”, “You are this kind of person”, etc. Overall this brings out a huge amount of negativity which is sure to put your partner on defense. If they are on defense, a solution will be difficult to come by. Gottman says,
“Consider one experiment we conducted in the love lab. We had couples spend 15 minutes discussing a marital issue, and then we told them we needed to ‘adjust the equipment.’ Over the next 30 minutes, while we ‘fixed’ the apparatus, we asked them to avoid the topic and just read magazines. When we restarted the experiment, their heart rates were significantly lower than before hand and their interactions more productive. ” (1999)
The way we talk about the issue has a direct effect on the outcome, so how do we soften our start-ups in order to keep our discussions calm and productive? Keep the Negativity out! Make sure that when you are complaining; focus your complaint on the situation and not on your partner. Use “I” statements. “I feel hurt (sad, scared, angry) when you. . . “, “I really wanted . . . could you. . .”, “I don’t like when . . . please do this instead.” (1999) Here is a link to more information about how to effectively soften startups, I encourage everyone to learn as much as you can on this so you can incorporate it into your marriage (More about harsh vs. soft startups). When we are doing our best to keep our voice and comments polite and calm, our spouse has the opportunity to listen instead of formulating the next defensive maneuver. This leads me to my final point, listening makes a big difference in any conversation.
All human beings have the inner need to be acknowledged and understood. It is more than just a desire; it is a real need. This is why, when having a discussion or an argument, it is really important to acknowledge what your spouse is saying. Listen to understand what your spouse is saying. Many times people are listening to respond. This means that they are forming their response instead of taking the time to actually listen and understand what is being said. When both spouses can speak politely to each other and listen with an intent to understand what the love of their life is trying to say, the issue becomes a problem solving discussion instead of a duel.
If you are currently stuck in a pattern of dueling with your spouse, be patient, it will take many tries before you are both able to successfully soften your startups and listen effectively. Be persistent and keep practicing!
Gottman J.M., Silver N. (1999) The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country’s foremost relationship expert. New York: Harmony Books.