I just read an article explaining how sometimes in marriage you have to lose to “win”.  This makes me think about a statement I have heard and I often say to my clients “you can be right or you can be in relationship with”.  What does that mean to you and what do you want? Do you want to win and lose your partner or do you want to stay in relationship with your partner?  So often when a fight escalates we aren’t really listening to each other.  We get caught up trying to prove that we are right, and we dig our heels into the ground, refusing to let go of our perception of the fight.  

This is where Dr. John Gottman’s research and approach to working with couples is so right on. Dr. Gottman explains how when a fight continues to escalate often times we turn to stonewalling.  This is when a person shuts down, and drops out of the conversation.  Sometimes if the fight continues to escalate we can go into fight or flight mode.  When we are here our heart rate is over 90 beats per minute. According to Gottman’s research, once you’ve reached this point the only way to help is to self-soothe.  Stop the fighting and give yourself 10-15 minutes to take deep breaths and do relaxation exercises.  

You have to interrupt the negative cycle in the fight!

Once the fight is so volatile or once you have shutdown, staying there only hurts yourselves and the relationship.   I point out to clients that creating a plan for how they want to interrupt the negative interaction is important. This conversation should be at a time when there is no fighting, but talking about things like:

  • If I start to feel heated, I will tell you I need to take a break.  
  • When you get upset I need you to tell me let’s take some deep breaths. 
  • Point out to each other, let’s stop and come back to this conversation after we have done our relaxation exercises.  

Again, remembering the goal shouldn’t be to prove that you are right and your partner is wrong, but that you are both working together to try and understand each other and your positions and feelings about the present issue.  

Dr. Gottman’s research also points out that 96% of the time the first 3 minutes of a conversation, the way it starts, will predict how it ends.  The more we try to prove that we are right, the more we will stay on a position, not willing to listen and hear what our partner is saying.  Based on that statistic, Gottman uses the term ‘harsh startup’. When we start the conversation that way, it only goes downhill from there.  

The alternative to harsh startup and criticism is called a softened start up.  Gottman states that instead of criticizing your partner you should tell them how you feel, what it is about and what you need from them.  When you stick with the “I” statements you are likely to avoid defensiveness and the escalation of the argument.   So instead of saying “you never help me with the chores, you said you would help me”, a softened startup would look something like this: “I feel disappointed and upset when we don’t’ work on the chores together.  I need us to come up with a list of shared responsibilities or an agreed upon time to work together”.  Another example, Criticism:  “you always spend more money than what we have, I thought we agreed on a budget together. “  Softened startup:  “I feel misunderstood when we talk about money.  I need us to find a way to be on the same page when it comes to the budget”.  

These are just a few pieces of how to work through arguments.  I would recommend couples read some of Gottman’s book for more in depth tools. “The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work” and “What Makes Love Last” are just two books that I highly recommend.  Also, feel free to look at his website for more helpful resources.  

If you continue to struggle, please, contact a therapist to help you through the difficult times in your relationship.