Many couples who come our way for therapy are discouraged…somewhere out there they have seen “ideal” couples who seem in synch about everything, happily dancing their way through arguments with love and patience. Well, I am here to give you what I consider to be good news: the research shows that happy couples do not fight any less than unhappy couples. Let me say that again: happy couples fight…frequently and about just as thorny issues as those who describe their relationship as unhappy.
What happens when we fight?
However, the key distinctions between those who stay together and those who break up (because you knew there was one), is not THAT they fight, it’s HOW they fight. For example, when women, who tend to bring up about 80% of the issues in a relationship, start the conversation harshly, over time that predicts breakup. Or if one of the partners gets “flooded” physiologically during an argument, that’s another warning sign for the relationship. Recent research shows that men typically get more biologically upset during conflicts with their partner (in ways like increased heart rate, perspiration and secretion of stress hormones), which makes it even more important that women bring up issues in a balanced and non-accusing way. When either sex begins to get upset or threatened, blood is literally shunted away from the “smart” part of our brain, located in the frontal lobe and moves to our more primal brain where the fight or flight response is stored.
So what to do?
Couples who regularly use behaviors like defensiveness, criticism and blame tend to eventually break-up. In a practical sense, they begin to have more negative interactions than positive (5 to 1) versus happy couples who have the opposite ratio. John Gottman, one of the gurus of couple’s therapy, has isolated seven behaviors that happy couples consistently practice that keeps their connection in the “relational black.” Next blog post I will share with you what these behaviors are and how to integrate them into your couple hood. If you can’t wait, Google John Gottman and his best seller The Seven Principles to Making Marriage Work.