The movies we watch as kids often make us think that relationships should be like Disney fairy tales.
No conflict. No effort. Easy.
It’s a peculiarly American problem.
Psychologist John Gottman, who’s studied marriages for 42 years and authored 40-some books on the topic, tells Business Insider that Americans believe “that disagreements and conflict are bad.”
It’s one of the country’s biggest misconceptions about how marriages work, and one explanation for why divorce rates remain staggeringly high in the US.
“It’s a particularly American view,” Gottman says. “Americans believe that talking about your feelings is really bad, too — that just the passage of time will make it better.”
Contrary to what Sleeping Beauty would lead you to believe, confrontations are a part of a relationship’s maturation. In fact, research finds that h
ealthy relationships rely on the ability to handle conflict in a healthy way.
Instead of defaulting to the extremes of hiding your emotions or endlessly telling your partner what to do, Gottman suggests practicing “intimate conversation.” It’s the subtle art of putting your emotions into words and asking thoughtful, exploratory questions of your partner.
Gottman says that the American hesitance around talking about difficult subjects comes from the country’s British, particularly Anglo-Saxon, heritage.
“Anglo-Saxon cultures tend to be honour cultures, where any kind of opposition is viewed as a moral affront,” he says. “You don’t tolerate disagreement. You think that disagreement is dysfunctional, and agreement is functional. When someone says you’re wrong, you take it as a moral affront.”
Honour cultures hold grudges.
The South harbours an honour culture — it’s how you get the Hatfields and the McCoys hating each other for generations. Jewish culture is also honour-bound: You might have a broiges with the “cousins you haven’t spoken to for 20 years because they seated you at the table next to the kitchen at their son’s bar mitzvah,” according to Rabbi Julian Sinclair.
Such feuds can happen in the context of a marriage: If both spouses take offence at being disagreed with, then you’re probably going to run into some long-term feuding, especially if those frustrations are never voiced.
“In honour cultures, conflict is viewed as irresolvable,” Gottman says. “The belief is that once you have conflict, you open the floodgates to envy and greed and lust — all those things have to be suppressed. There’s a negative attitude toward the emotional part of life, as opposed to believing conflict is productive.”
Like in, for instance, Mediterranean cultures.
“In Italy,” Gottman says, “if somebody tells you that you’re full of shit, you say, ‘That’s probably true, but so are you.'”
The conclusion may seem paradoxical: If you’re going to live happily ever after, you’re going to have hear that you’re full of it from your partner — and continue the conversation from there.
NOW WATCH: Ideas videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.