I love to talk about love—even some of the darker parts of coupledom, such as arguments, fights, and problems. After all, without the dark we wouldn’t have the light!
Most of us don’t realize there are patterns to how we fight…and make-up, if we so choose to work at it. Ask yourself:
Are you having the same fight over and over again?
Your arguments might be more common than you think. Can you relate to this awesome video?
The Science of Fighting
According to marriage and family counselor Dr. John Gottman, a true expert in this field, 69 percent of marriage conflicts never are solved. Yes, 69 percent!
That means we often are having the same fight over and over again.
This is actually good news. Why? If we have similarities or patterns to our fights it means a) we are not alone and b) we can study, predict and course-correct our arguments before they explode.
Dr. Gottman has conducted more than 40 years of research with more than 3,000 married couples. He calls these unresolved issues ‘gridlocked’. Watch this video for more:
Gridlocked Issue: A common topic that comes up for a couple that cannot be resolved and typically devolves into a nasty argument.
The Top 5 Issues Couples Fight About:
What do most couples fight about? Here are the 5 most common issues:
- Free Time
- Physical Intimacy
- Extended Family
Here are some ways you can use the science of couples to help your relationship:
1. The New Mindset
How to Fight Better: I want us to shift the focus to fighting ‘better’ as opposed to fighting less. Why? Fighting better is about having discussions, not arguments. It is about respectfully hearing the other person when perpetual problems come up. It’s also a lot of pressure to try fighting less. We all want to fight less, but the point of this article is to deepen understanding, and that can mean discussing more.
2. Identify Your Issues
One of the most interesting discussions I have ever had with my husband was identifying our ‘perpetual issues’. We sat down and thought about the problems and topics that have come up recently and looked for patterns. Did any of them fall into the top five above? Were there any common threads or underlying themes to our arguments? The answer—yes. We didn’t realize it at first, but we basically were having the same three arguments over and over again, with different dressing.
- Sit down with your partner (or by yourself with a journal) and review all of the arguments you have had recently or any big blow-up fights over the last few months. Try identifying the patterns underlying the arguments.
- Once you have identified your patterns, clearly delineate each partner’s side of the argument. Do this in non-judgmental terms. For example, an issue could be ‘spending.’ Husband likes to treat himself to little dinners out regularly, whereas Wife likes to save up for big treats. Neither is ‘wrong’ but this way you know where you both stand.
3. Localize Don’t Globalize
One reason little arguments can erupt so quickly is because a small disagreement can be tagged onto one of your larger arguments and immediately explode into the big fight. You already know your issues and where the other stands, so it is very important to keep small arguments compartmentalized and specific to the situation. This can help you focus on the issue and keep the discussion as just that—a discussion. Since you know you have fundamental differences on the larger argument, there is no reason to bring it into everyday discussions.
- Try to avoid globalizing the other person or their behavior. Try not to say “You always do this” or “This is your pattern” or “You never…”
- Don’t call up past arguments or offenses. I know it’s hard, but it only will exacerbate an issue that is gridlocked ( and devolve into a larger fight).
And, by the way, you aren’t the only couple who fights about your issues:
4. Start with Agreement
If a gridlocked issue comes up on a daily basis and you need to approach it, start with agreement. Dr. Gottman noticed that successful couples who have been together for a long time master gentleness. They present issues in a soft way by never starting with criticism. In fact, starting with agreement is the best way to avoid an argument and start a discussion. Find something you can agree upon and start there.
- For example, if you have family coming in for the weekend and Wife wants a hotel, but Husband wants houseguests, Wife could say, “I know we can agree that family time is important, and I know we both can get a little annoyed when we are overrun with nieces and nephews. Let’s try to think of a way to make this weekend work.”
5. Look Underneath the Argument
This is the hardest one, but the most important. Sometimes there are underlying issues beneath the gridlocked issue. I want you to think about what’s happening underneath the argument. Are there value-based differences? You might actually be arguing about basic philosophical concepts, such as someone’s sense of self, power, freedom, care, what family means, what home means or control. Look at your gridlocked issue and ask the question “Why?” five times. *Be sure to get buy-in to do this from both people, so it is exploratory not antagonistic. For example:
- Wife: I am very upset right now.
- Man: Why?
- Wife: I need more help around the house.
- Man: Why do you feel that way?
- Wife: I feel overworked and overwhelmed with the stuff that needs to be done.
- Man: Why do you feel overwhelmed?
- Wife: It just feels like it all lands on me at the end of the day.
- Man: Why do you feel it all lands on you?
- Wife: I don’t see you offering to help and that makes me frustrated.
- Man: Why does that happen?
- Wife: It makes me feel underappreciated.
Okay, now they are onto something! Yes, help around the house is great, but it all boils down to feeling underappreciated. If the husband were to make the wife feel more appreciated, perhaps thanking her for what already has been done, that might be even more beneficial than helping. Combining help and gratitude could be the ultimate healer in this fight.
Knowing your issues and where you stand can help prevent you from having the same argument over and over again. Agreeing to disagree and naming the issue can prevent arguments in the future. For example, I was walking a couple through this exercise and this process happened:
- Common Issue: Vacationing with the in-laws. Husband doesn’t like to vacation with his in-laws, Wife does.
- Localize: Trip to Hawaii over Thanksgiving
- Agreement: We both know we need a vacation and we are due for an in-law visit.
- Why’s: Wife learns that the reason Husband doesn’t like to vacation with the in-laws has nothing to do with them. He loves the in-laws! But he wants more couple time. “We are so busy during the work week that our vacations are the only alone time we get together.”
- Acceptance: This is a difference in preference—it is not an attack on the in-laws or a desire not to vacation together. A possible compromise to recognize the underlying need for alone time could be to go on vacation a few days early before the in-laws arrive.
You want your perpetual issues to be more like the crazy uncle who shows up unannounced and less like the hidden rabid dog in the closet. In other words, the more your issue is talked about, tolerated and discussed, the easier and less trap-filled it will be.
About Vanessa Van Edwards
Lead Investigator, Science of People
I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.
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