If you’ve recently gotten into a heated argument with your significant other, chances are you’re familiar with what happens next: Your mind swirls with ideas about how you wish the conversation had gone.
You shouldn’t have let your emotions get the best of you, you think to yourself. If only you’d held your tongue about that last bit. You didn’t mean to be so, well, mean.
Here’s the good news: If you approach your partner about it now, there’s a good chance he or she won’t be permanently hurt. More importantly, talking about a conflict just after it’s happened gives you and your partner the chance to figure out what went wrong and take the necessary action to resolve it.
Practicing this critical step can often be what separates the couples who stay together from those who divorce, says John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington and founder of the Gottman Institute.
Gottman and University of California-Berkeley psychologist Robert Levenson conducted a 14-year study of 79 couples living across the US Midwest (21 of whom divorced during the study period) published in 2002. They found they could distinguish the couples who stayed together from the ones who eventually divorced with a few simple behavioural patterns.
Other more recent research has built upon those initial findings. A 2015 study of 145 couples, for example, found that those who received trainings 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 receive the training. Those who didn’t get the training were also more likely to see their interactions deteriorate over the year they were reporting back to the researchers.
Another 2010 study of 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.
How a successful couple fights vs. how a couples who divorces fights
When it came to how they addressed arguments, couples in Gottman’s study who eventually split generally took longer to address a recent argument, often leaving each other to stew in individual thoughts for hours or days after a fight. They also would often cut off discussions about a conflict prematurely with unhelpful, insensitive comments.
Conversely, couples who stayed together would typically discuss their arguments almost immediately after they’d happened, and when they did so they would generally approach one another with an open mind, taking responsibility for their actions and listening to their partner’s feelings.
Say you sound off on your partner for leaving the dishes in the sink, for example. Sure, you could spend the next few minutes (or hours or days) telling yourself that it was no big deal or that he or she will get over it eventually. You could even try to justify your actions by telling yourself that your partner shouldn’t have been such a slob.
But the longer you wait, the worse the situation is likely to get, says Gottman.
Picture yourself and your partner in a boat, Gottman says, with the emotions that both of you are feeling 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 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.
In other words, don’t bring up a heated argument only to tell your partner that he or she was wrong to begin with, or that he or she was simply being illogical. Why? Because a statement like this does nothing to acknowledge his or her feelings.
“If you tell someone they’re not being logical or say something like ‘you’re getting off track,'” says Gottman, “it just doesn’t work. It makes people angry.” On the other hand, saying something like, “I can see that this is really important to you; tell me more” — that allows the other person to feel heard, Gottman says.
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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