“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.”
John Gottman is a hot-shit psychologist and researcher who has spent over 30 years analyzing married couples, looking for keys to why they stick together (and why they break up). In fact, 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—they’re told to pick something they’re having problems with and talk about it for the camera.
Gottman then analyses the couple’s discussion (or shouting match) and is able to predict—with startling accuracy—whether or not a couple will divorce.
But what’s most interesting about Gottman’s research is that the things that lead to divorce are not necessarily what you might imagine. He found that successful couples, like unsuccessful couples, fight consistently. And some of them fight furiously.1
Gottman 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:2
Criticizing your partner’s character (“you’re so stupid” vs “that thing you did was stupid.”)
Defensiveness (or basically, blame shifting, “I wouldn’t have done that if you weren’t late all the time.”)
Contempt (putting down your partner and making them feel inferior.)
Stonewalling (withdrawing from an argument and ignoring your partner.)
The reader emails you all sent back this up as well. Out of the 1,500 I received, almost every single one referenced the importance of dealing well with conflict.
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 a 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 that, or 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. I usually walk around the block 2-3 times and let myself seethe for a bit. Then I come back and we’re both a bit calmer and we can resume the discussion with a more conciliatory tone.
Remember that being “right” is not as important as both people feeling respected and heard. You may well 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: the willingness to fight in the first place.
When people talk about the necessity for “good communication” all of the time, this is what they should 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.