When’s the last time you really got into it with your significant other? After the yelling was done, did your mind swirl with ideas about what you should have said? Or perhaps about what you should not have said?
Here’s the good news: Not only can you most likely rectify the situation, knowing how to approach the argument next time can mean you and your partner have a more productive — and perhaps less volatile — “discussion.”
Productive arguments, in fact, are one of the things that appear to distinguish couples who stay together from those who split, according to research from several psychologists, including University of Washington psychology professor John Gottman, founder of the Gottman Institute, an organisation dedicated to studying and improving relationships.
Together with University of California, Berkeley psychologist Robert Levenson, Gottman conducted a 14-year study of 79 married couples living across the US Midwest.
Among the couples they studied, 21 ended up divorcing over the more-than-decade-long period. But among those who stuck it out, Gottman and Levenson noticed some key things about their relationships, including how they fought. Here are some of the key takeaways:
How couples who stay together argue
1. They stabilise a rocking boat
Among the couples who split, the vast majority took far longer to address a recent argument than those who stayed together, often leaving each other to stew in individual thoughts for hours or days after a fight, Gottman told Business Insider. Conversely, couples who stayed together would typically discuss their arguments almost immediately after they’d happened.
Picture yourself and your partner in a boat, Gottman suggested. Now, imagine that the emotions you and your partner are feeling are represented by the sea around you. A small argument stirs the waters a bit and gets the boat rocking. But a quick effort to stabilise the boat — with an open conversation or an apology — can be all that’s required to get you back to smooth sailing.
Waiting around, on the other hand, only strengthens the waves. And waiting too long, he said, can lead to disaster.
To calm a rocking boat, Gottman suggests you and your partner talk immediately and openly about what just happened. This requires recognising that both of you are partially responsible for the problem and both of you are responsible for making amends.
2. They allow the other person to be heard
Another characteristic of couples who later divorced that Gottman observed is that they’d frequently cut off discussions about a conflict prematurely with unhelpful, insensitive comments. But strong couples tended to consistently approach one another with an open mind, taking responsibility for their actions and listening to what their partner had to say.
So if, in the middle of an argument, you stop your partner to tell them they’re being illogical, you’re probably doing it wrong.
“If you tell someone they’re not being logical or say something like ‘you’re getting off track,’ it just doesn’t work. It makes people angry,” said Gottman. Instead, saying something like: “I can see that this is really important to you; tell me more” allows the other person to feel heard.
What other research says
More recent psychological research builds upon Gottman and Levenson’s work.
A study of 145 couples published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology last year found that couples who received training on how to address conflicts immediately and with clear communication felt more satisfied with their relationship a year down the road than couples who didn’t get the training. Those who didn’t receive the training were also more likely to see their interactions deteriorate over the year they were reporting back to the researchers.
And a 2010 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family which looked at 373 married couples found that, when both partners engaged positively during an argument — meaning they discussed the topic calmly and made an effort to listen to their partner and better understand his or her feelings — they were far less likely to divorce than couples where there was no positive engagement or when only one partner would engage positively. The results held steady as far as 16 years down the road.
So next time you feel an argument escalating, try one of these tactics. It might restore some calm to your relationship, or even help keep your boat from capsizing.
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