Contrary to what fairy tales may tell you, living “happily ever after” with your partner is going require a few arguments.
It’s required for the relationship to mature.
“If they don’t have those conversations, over time their relationship will deteriorate,” says psychologist John Gottman. “They will be living in an ice palace.”
Gottman, who’s authored 40-some books on the science of relationships and cofounded the Gottman Institute for couples therapy with his wife, says that these “repairing” conversations help a couple to become more intimate and more loving.
“To get better at conflict, you have to learn how to talk to each other emotionally,” he says. “That’s the skill of intimate conversation, and that’s the key to sex and romance, too.”
Intimate conversation — which is a much more enlightened form of arguing — has four components.
• Putting your emotions into words. Your partner’s best attempts at listening aren’t going to be very fruitful unless you can articulate what’s happening in your interior space. It’s about “being able to put your emotions into words that really are what you actually feel,” Gottman says, which requires understanding your bodily sensations. “Knowing where you feel tense, what relaxed feels like, what truth feels like.” A meditation-like technique called Focusing helps with developing that skill.
• Asking open-ended questions. Open-ended questions allow you to explore your partner’s feelings. “They open up the heart and have acceptance at the base of them,” Gottman says. For example, you might ask:
So what do you feel about this living room — how would you change it if you had all the money in the world? What do you want your life to be like in three years? How do you like your job?
• Making open-ended statements. “These are exploratory statements,” he says, where you encourage your partner to
tell you a story. For instance: I want to hear all of your thoughts about quitting your job. I want to hear all of your thoughts about your job.
• Empathizing with your partner. Rather than saying you understand, show that you understand. “Empathy is really communicating that you understand your partner’s feelings and they make sense to you,” Gottman says. “It’s really caring about your partner’s welfare, not just your own.”
When both people use all four of these skills, they can be vulnerable, honest, and safe — which allows tensions to turn into growth.
“We teach these skills all the time in couples therapy,” Gottman says. “If you don’t have those skills, you’re kind of screwed in interpersonal relationships.”
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