After years of searching, you find “the one,” and merge with each other in what seems like perfect love. But after a little time passes you begin to notice the ways, large and small, that things aren’t so perfect after all. Your partner runs the dishwasher every day, whistles Christmas carols year round, or loves “little House on the Prairie” reruns. S/he is a spendthrift or intolerably cheap. You are a neat freak, but your other half is a total slob. And so on. You begin to suspect that you’re “settling” and start to wonder if the grass is greener somewhere else. You go on a campaign to fix your partner’s personality and change his or her bad habits. You begin to see the person you love as a human reclamation project, and your home begins to feel more like a battlefield than a haven of safety and love. It’s an all-too-predictable pattern.
No one has researched how couples interact in more depth than psychologist John Gottman. Based on many hundreds of hours of filming couples interact with one another in a specially fabricated apartment in Seattle, he learned to predict, with 91 percent accuracy, who will break up and who will stay together. One of his most interesting discoveries was that the majority of conflicts in successful relationships – 69 percent to be exact – are never resolved at all. To take on a relationship, it seems, is to take on a set of problems. Since no relationship is free of difficulties, in most cases the grass won’t be greener elsewhere. To battle with a partner in the vain hope of “winning,” i.e., getting him or her to change, usually only creates resentment and distance. Since most disagreements in relationship are rooted in deep personality and value differences, it’s more realistic to learn to live with them with humor and patience, and to be content with small changes and compromises.
The key to successful relationships, Gottman found, isn’t how couples handle disagreements, but how they are with each other when they aren’t fighting. The most deadly emotion in any relationship is contempt for your partner, and the most effective way to prevent this cancer from poisoning your relationship is to work deliberately and daily at nurturing your fondness and admiration for one another. Without the fundamental belief that your partner is worthy of honor and respect, no basis for a satisfying relationship exists. Moreover, focusing on your feelings of fondness and admiration for your partner is an immediate antidote to contempt, because contempt and admiration can’t both occupy your mind at the same time.
One of the most concrete ways to demonstrate your respect is to let your partner influence you. When your partner expresses different opinions, does things in a different way from you, or gives you advice and suggestions, do you respond as if your power and autonomy are being threatened? Do you resort to criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling to drown your partner out and obliterate his or her point of view? Or do you listen, discuss and consider what you’re hearing? (Note to male couples: the research shows that men are far more prone to turn disagreements into power struggles than women.)
But how do we resolve the conflicts that can be resolved? Discussions invariably end on the same note they begin. If you initiate discussion of an issue with name-calling, yelling, or accusations, that’s how the conversation will end. Successful conflict resolution is more likely if you speak calmly and with respect. Complain, but don’t blame. Confront, but don’t attack. Focus on the situation that upsets you, not on your partner’s character. Make statements that start with “I” instead of “You.” For instance, say “I’d like you to listen to me,” not “You never listen to me.” Couch your request within an appreciative statement about what your partner has done right in the past. And don’t store things up. If you wait too long before bringing up an issue, it will just escalate in your mind.
It is true that some problems can’t be resolved and not all relationships should continue. Physical violence, for instance, isn’t something anyone should learn to tolerate in their relationship. And there are some issues which can create deadly gridlock unless some livable compromise is discovered. More about that next time.