How to Fight Productively In A Marriage

And by that we mean having a productive conversation that doesn't end in tears or with you texting a buddy to see if you can crash for the night.

by Chase Scheinbaum
Originally Published: 

Fighting is a given in a marriage. What most people don’t know is how to fight well. That doesn’t mean you “win;” it means that an argument results in valuable communication and actually leads to a resolution other than you knocking on a friend’s door to crash for the night.

After studying countless couples in the throes of fights for a few decades, Drs John and Julie Gottman of The Gottman Institute came up with a cheat sheet of sorts to master the lover’s quarrel. That is to say, they and their team of researchers watched countless duos chew one other out again and again and then arrived at the most useful way to have an argument that doesn’t end in tears. Here, Donald Cole, Clinical Director of The Gottman Institute, lays out the instructions for keeping things civil and, most importantly, productive.

1. Start Conversations Gently

Folks schooled in Gottman’s ideas call this a “gentle start-up.” “Their research found that “when a conflict conversation begins with a hard start it will go off the rails 96 percent of the time,” says Cole. “If it starts harshly, it’s almost impossible for it to end well.”

The gentle start is made up of three steps. Plan them out in your head before you open your mouth.

  • Step 1

“Talk about what you feel, instead of how my partner is wrong,” Cole says. This could be a worry or anxiety you have, or some other emotion-based feeling about something that’s bothering you or that you want to improve. This statement will begin with I, because it’s about your subjective experience.

  • Step 2

This part consists of explaining, in a way your partner can understand, what’s driving your emotion.

  • Step 3

Now you’re going to present solutions to the problem, or things that will make you feel better. If you’re anxious about being late to the airport on account of your partner’s Laissez-fair approach to packing, explain that you’d like her to pack the night before.

2. Express Your Desires And Don’t Put the Other Person Down

“We believe that with every put down, there’s a desire that’s not being expressed,” says Cole.

So, instead of phrasing things as how the other person is failing you (eg: “You’re so cold.”) phrase it in a way that conveys what you want (““I wish we could be closer,” or, “I wish we could have more sex.”)he advises. “In the history of marriage, no one has ever heard a bunch of criticisms and slapped their forehead and said, Oh my god, you’re right!”

3. Break the Stone Wall

According to Gottman’s research, when stonewalling occurs in heterosexual couples, the stonewaller is the guy 85 percent of the time. “It’s kind of a guy thing,” Cole confirms.

“Stonewalling” you may recall can be described as shutting down during an argument. You stop responding, which appears to your partner that you don’t care what they say or how they feel. “They even look calm on the outside. They’re not screaming or crying,“ Cole says. But research has shown that stonewallers’ heart rates are highly accelerated. They’re feeling very emotional, but they think that any response will make things worse.

“The stonewaller is right to try to calm things down but the way he’s doing it is very destructive,” Cole says. Here’s the right way to do it: Ask for a break. Tell your partner that you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed and go for a walk or otherwise put your brain on ice until you’ve cooled your jets.

So what’s the best way to avoid this? Ask for a break. Tell your partner that you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed and go for a walk or otherwise put your brain on ice until you’ve cooled your jets.

3. Establish a Signal

Certain healthy couples establish a signal or come to an agreement that if one person asks for a time-out, or sends the signal, the other will grant it. You can figure out later if the time-out was warranted, or if one party was overreacting, but the agreement can give you space to gain perspective on that.

4. Take Responsibility…Even a Little Bit

Criticism and defensiveness are two sides of the same coin. (You: “You’re doing X.”; Partner: “No, I’m not. That’s not fair.”) See? Being defensive will only lead to more criticism, and possibly to the expensively decorated office of an overpriced divorce attorney. “The defensive person’s role is to take responsibility,” Cole says. “You can say: I don’t need to get defensive. You’re right, I am doing that. I’ll try to change.” “I don’t have to own it all, but taking some ownership of the problem de-escalates it,” he says.

5. Follow Your Heart

Excuse the cheesy sub-headline, but we’re not talking about the corny metaphorical heart. We’re talking about the fist-sized organ in your chest that’s the best measure that you’re losing your head.

“When we’re getting triggered, the first sign of overload is acceleration and increased intensity of heart rate,” Cole says. Whatever the cause, if your heart is pounding in your ears, you’re instantly covered in a sheen of sweat or your partner can see a huge vein popping out of your neck, you should probably take five. Have the conversation later, maybe over a background of that new age-y music they play in yoga class.

While these steps might make you feel a bit strange at first, with practice, they’ll make it more likely that your arguments end productively instead of in tears or with you texting a buddy to see if you can crash for the night.

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