Do you know John Gottman? Well, I don’t mean personally, but do you know of John Gottman? Perhaps you’ve heard his name mentioned or seen him on TV. Dr. John Gottman, a relationship guru, is a psychologist who studies marriage and writes excellent books on improving your relationship.
What makes Gottman so special is that his ideas are based on over 30 years of scientific research.
In this month’s column, I’d like to translate some of that research for you. I will introduce two relatively simple ideas based on Gottman’s work: the soft start-up and the smooth repair. Both can help you fight more constructively (or avoid a fight altogether).
With these ideas in mind, I hope to launch you on a journey of improving your relationship with your partner.
1. The Soft Start-up.
One of Gottman’s main findings is that wives are more likely than husbands to start a conversation with criticism.
When Gottman recorded couples interacting, he often saw this in very distressed couples. In fact, he found that he could predict future divorce with a high degree of accuracy based on how critical wives were of their husbands in the first three minutes of the interaction.
A harsh start-up often causes one partner to retreat, which only makes the other more upset. That cycle is a fast track to divorce.
For example, imagine a married couple: Jane and John. Jane says, “Why are you treating me like I am invisible?” John looks at her, then just walks toward the bedroom. Jane pursues, standing at the bedroom door, almost yelling, “I want an answer! It’s like I am not even here!”
To counteract this dynamic, we need to move to a softer start-up. For example, Jane might say something like, “I love when you talk to me—about anything. Sometimes, it seems so hard for us to just talk. Tell me something. I’d love to hear what you did at work today.” This doesn’t get at the problem directly, but it begins from a position of valuing the other person, not putting him/her on the defensive.
Let’s switch the genders now because this can go both ways. John picks both kids up from school, feeds them and starts the nighttime routine. Jane is trying to get home from a late work meeting. When she finally arrives, John blurts out, “Where the hell were you?! It’s a madhouse here, and you’re out to dinner enjoying yourself.” Jane responds sarcastically, “Oh, poor John, it’s so tough watching the kids for two hours—like I don’t do this all of the time.” And we’re off to the races.
The softer start-up in this situation is clear. Any number of less accusatory and angry statements would work. John: “Thank God you’re home! It’s a madhouse here.” Or, John: “What happened? It’s getting late and I was beginning to worry.”
Softer start-ups lead to better conversations. Try it, and see if it improves your relationship.
2. The Smooth Repair.
All couples fight, and all people in a relationship criticize and get defensive with each other. The question is not about ending these behaviors per se (although decreasing their frequency can be important in many cases), but about building better repair strategies.
Gottman has found that one of the key elements of successful relationships is high quality repair. By repair, Gottman means any tactic that deescalates a conflict as it unfolds. Good repair strategies are how successful couples prevent their conflicts from getting out of control.
What does repair look like? It’s soothing yourself or your partner; it’s using humor to deescalate tensions; it’s acknowledging that things are getting overwhelming; it’s allowing your partner to be right; it’s recognizing and stating that you’re wrong; and, it’s often a comment on the communication itself.
This last idea is important. Meta-communication means talking about how the discussion is going in general. Consider: “I think we’re getting off track here, and I don’t want this to turn into a big fight.” Or, this: “Wait. I’ve lost focus. I am so angry, but I don’t know what exactly we’re fighting about right now.”
In happy couples, the meta-communication opens the possibility of deescalation; in unhappy couples, however, the meta-communication can be just another “thing” to fight about.
Consider Jane’s effort to deescalate: “I think we’ve gotten off track here—we need to just calm down.” John’s response: “Who are you telling to calm down?! YOU need to calm down. I have a right to be angry because you’re being obnoxious.”
This example is a clear repair failure. John didn’t accept Jane’s meta-communication bid to slow things down. From this example, we see that repair depends more on the receiver side than on the initiator side. You can be humorous, affectionate, or meta-communicative, but it’s not going anywhere if your partner doesn’t see the bid and respond in kind.
When we think about having “good fights” with our partners, we need to think about noticing repair bids and accepting them when they’re thrown out there.
If your partner simply pounds on you when you try to repair, why not talk with him/her about the importance of learning to put the brakes on during a fight? If you talk about repair in advance, then you can both notice the bids when they’re being thrown out there.
Here’s an idea: Have him/her read this column. Agree to try it out. Better still, read a Gottman book together, then discuss. Here’s one of his books I recommend quite a lot.
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