Most of us think that arguments are harmful for marriages and we work to eliminate them from happening. But marriage expert and psychologist Dr John Gottman thinks we should have different goals. He writes, “The issue isn’t whether you fight, it’s how you fight and how rich your stockpile of good feelings is about each other to weather difficulties and keep your basic attitude toward your partner positive.”
We’d like to share from an April 2002 “Family Circle” magazine article. It’s titled, “Lessons from the Love Lab… Learning to Get Even Closer.” We fully appreciate the GREAT insights it gives.
The author, Judi Dash and her husband visited a workshop conducted by John Gottman and his staff to learn how to “fight in order to get closer.” This term seems contradictory but it’s true.
As Judi said about her and her husband:
“We loved each other deeply, but we didn’t fight well. Increasingly, disagreements seemed to spiral quickly out of control. Before we knew it, one of us was yelling or stalking out of the room. Both of us were hurt and frustrated. We always made up, eventually, but the toll was high. Each new fight seemed to escalate faster than the last one, leaving us drained of energy and affection. After nearly seven years of marriage, we were worried about all this negativity that had somehow crept into our life together.”
Does this sound familiar? It sure does to us. We’ve been there in the past TOO MANY TIMES! But that doesn’t mean we have to STAY in that mode of negativity. We can change our future behavior if we’ll learn what it takes to become “masters” instead of “disasters” in marriage.
As Dr Gottman says:
“At the heart of my research is the simple truth that happy marriages are based on a deep friendship —a mutual respect and enjoyment of each other’s company. A couple that keeps their friendship strong despite the inevitable disagreements and irritations of married life experiences what I call ‘positive sentiment over-ride’ —their positive thoughts about each other and their marriage are so pervasive that they tend to supersede their negative feelings. It takes a much more significant conflict for them to lose their equilibrium as a couple.”
Judi wrote further:
Meanwhile, troubled marriages, through years of building up unresolved resentments and disappointments, are seething with ‘negative sentiment override.’ These folks, he says, have stopped trusting that the other has their best interests at heart.
And when contempt creeps into the marriage, ‘be careful,’ warns Gottman. It can act ‘like sulfuric acid on love. The antidote to contempt is to create a marriage environment of appreciation, fondness, admiration, understanding and pride. Whenever contempt starts rearing its head, force yourself to scan for positive thoughts and feelings about your partner. This is your friend, the love of your life you’re arguing with —not some mortal enemy.’”
The first task that Dr Gottman had them do was to guide them through exercises “aimed at enhancing” their fondness for each other, their “humor” and “understanding of each other’s hopes and dreams.” “Building a positive marriage environment is our task today,” he told them. As Judi wrote, “On day two, armed with these good feelings, we’ll tackle our conflicts.”
The article went on:
“This is what real romance is,” Gottman tells us after the exercise. “Many people think that the secret to reconnecting romantically with their partner is a candlelit dinner or a by-the-sea vacation. But the real secret to increasing the strength of a marriage is to turn toward each other in little ways every day. A romantic night out really turns up the heat only when a couple keeps the pilot light burning. They stay in touch in little ways.”
Gottman then sends us off with a list of positive adjectives. We are to pick five that best describe our partner. We also are to write down an example that illustrates each adjective. “Many times when couples are going through a rough time with one another, they lost sight of all the positive aspects of the partner and relationship,” Gottman says.
They then share together what they’ve written. Judi and her husband do what is required of them.
She then writes:
Without realizing it, we have moved ahead to one of Gottman’s strongest indicators of a successful marriage. We were making and accepting bids. Bids, he explains, are the myriad ways couples approach each other in an attempt to share a thought or experience. This could be as subtle as mentioning something of interest you read in the newspaper. It could be as overt as saying you would like to make love tonight.
Gottman says that in strong marriages, partners might enthusiastically acknowledge each other in this way dozens of times a day. But in troubled marriages, one or both partners may turn away (‘I’m busy’). They turn against (‘That’s a dumb idea’), or even be unaware that a connection was being offered. This is because they have lost contact with the core connection to their mate. This is essential for building up a rich emotional bank account in a marriage. ‘To enrich that bank account, partners need to become better observers of each other’s reaching out,’ he says.
She goes on to share:
“All this stands us in good stead for Day Two, when we tackle conflicts. Gottman tells us that his research has identified five specific steps that couples in happy, stable marriages use for resolving disputes.
1. They begin a discussion with what he calls a softened start-up.
They state a complaint about a specific action, not condemnation of the other person. This means complain, but don’t blame. Describe what is happening; don’t evaluate and judge. Talk calmly about what you need without dredging up past resentments and failures.
2. When emotions get out of hand and hurts occur, they find ways to repair the damage.
The goal is to de-escalate the emotionalism and get the conversation back on a constructive track.
3. They accept influence from the other person.
They make a true effort to understand their individual roles in the mess and trying partner’s way of thinking.
4. They compromise.
The spouses acknowledging their individual roles in the mess and try to find a mutual solution.
5. On issues they can’t resolve, they accept what they can’t change.
They make an effort to be more tolerant of their partner’s personality —and imperfections.”
I wish we could share more of this article, but we can’t. However, we have the entire article, which we titled, It’s Not If You Fight But How You Fight That’s Important, posted on our web site. We also have other helpful articles in other topics on this web site.
You might even try to obtain the book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, written by John Gottman, to help you further.
If you’re not able to obtain the book, or if you don’t have a spouse who will fully cooperate with you in this area of your marriage, we encourage you to pray about what YOU CAN do. It’s amazing what God is able to do when we pray to Him and yield to His teachings!
Cindy and Steve Wright
More from Marriage Missions
Filed under: Marriage Messages