Anyone who’s been in love knows the feeling: Your heart starts to quicken, your cheeks heat up, your stomach flip-flops and you struggle to form words as your mind goes blank with… anger.
Fighting is pretty much inevitable in any romantic relationship and is the focus of a new book by Julie Schwartz Gottman, Ph.D., and her husband, John Gottman, Ph.D., “Fight Right: How Successful Couples Turn Conflict Into Connection,” out Jan. 30. The Gottmans are the leading researchers on marriage, having studied thousands of married couples over the years. They famously coined the “four horseman,” or behaviors that predict divorce with 90% accuracy.
They turned their expertise — both as therapists and a happily married couple of 36 years — to fighting because the phenomenon is “exploding in our culture today,” Julie Gottman tells TODAY.com.
“People are polarized. … They’re not listening to one another, and they don’t know the alternatives to criticizing each other and putting each other down,” she explains.
“There are alternatives that we learned from our research, but nobody takes relationships 101 in college, so we wanted to present the alternatives to the way people are fighting today.”
But the answer isn’t avoiding confrontation all together. It’s how you fight with your partner, especially within those first few minutes.
“The first three minutes of a conflict predict how the rest of the conversation will go with 96% accuracy, as well as predicting how the rest of the relationship will go six years down the road,” Julie Gottman says.
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Tips to fight in a healthier way
When pointing out a problem to their partner, many people frame it as a criticism or try to put their partner down. But it’s much more productive to instead describe whatever emotion you’re feeling and the context that led to it, and not focus on your partner’s flaws. Then, tell your partner your “positive need.”
“By that, what we mean is not saying what you don’t like or resent, but saying how your partner can shine for you,” Julie Gottman explains. “People can listen to that much more because they’re not feeling put down.”
The Gottmans take this approach one step further in their own relationship.
“If Julie utters the four terrifying words, ‘We need to talk,’ I get out my notebook and a pen, and I say, ‘OK, baby, I’m taking notes,'” John Gottman tells TODAY.com.
“I try to write down what she’s saying, and the more defensive I feel, the more I slow her down so I can get what she’s saying. And then reflect it back to her and see if I got it or distorted it, and then empathize with what she’s saying.”
“That helps me calm down and be less defensive,” he adds. “And as I’m listening, in my mind, I’m going, ‘That’s a good point. … I need to know more about that. I’ll ask about that in a while.'”
Julie Gottman’s main tool with difficult relationship conversations is not immediately searching for a resolution.
“I try to approach what John is saying with some humility in the sense that I don’t really understand where he’s coming from and I really want to dig deeper to find out what values are reflected in his position that he’s feeling,” she says.
“Is there an ideal dream beneath his position that he’s yearning for that really forms his position on the issue?” she explains, adding that a person’s childhood and previous relationships can play a role in the positions they take with their current partner.
“Once I understand those pieces, I’m going to feel better about connecting with him, being more compassionate (and) then moving toward a solution,” she says.
If the Gottmans are not in the mental state to listen, empathize and eventually find a solution, then they take a break.
“You have to make sure that you’re not flooded — (when) your heart rate is over 100 beats a minute, you’re really full of emotion and you’re in fight or flight,” Julie Gottman says. “When you’re in that state, you cannot think, listen (or) problem solve.”
Instead, you should take a break lasting 30 mins to 24 hours and do an activity that will take your mind off the fight.
“At the designated time, you come back and talk about the issue with your partner, and it looks like you’ve had a brain transplant,” Julie Gottman explains.
The motto that successful couples live by
There may be periods in your relationship where it can feel tiring to prioritize your partner’s needs, but “the couples who have great relationships seem to have a motto that if their partner is upset, the world stops and they listen,” John Gottman says. “They don’t half-listen. They just go, ‘OK, I’m getting out my notebook. I’m taking notes. You’re upset. I want to understand what’s going on here.'”
“The motto gets them to not be annoyed with their partner’s needs but be curious about what’s going on with their partner,” he adds.
Julie Gottman shares another way to connect with your partner that can make fighting easier going forward and keep you focused on each other instead of life’s never-ending checklists.
“A wonderful question is … what are your ideal dreams? If you could have the world any way that you wanted it to be for you and me, what would that look like?”
“It’s a beautiful question and the answer can last a lifetime,” she adds.
This article was originally published on TODAY.com