The Best Way to Fight
The Research on Anger & Relationships
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
John Gottman is the foremost researcher in the world on marriages and relationships. He puts add in the classified pages asking couples to come in and fight about anything they choose so he can study patterns of anger. He wires the partners to many scientific instruments to get body feedback and videotapes the arguments. He analyzes the tapes frame by frame and studies how relationships succeed and fail. He follows up on the couples to see who remain in relationship years later. Out of his study of many couples, happy and otherwise, he has discovered the necessary principles for making relationships work. Learning to resolve issues is necessary for the relationship to be happy.
All relationships have problems. It is usually the woman who is most dissatisfied. The woman who is usually the more submissive partner brings Eighty percent of complaints up first. The dominant partner does what he wants, but there is a cost to the relationship. The woman ends up unhappy. In these days, women are leaving relationships more often than men. It is usually after years of resentment after trying to have her needs met and failing.
The most successful relationships have partners who are willing to hear and deal with the complaints. This means that the man must be willing to be influenced by the woman. The willingness to be influenced by each other and take complains seriously is a skill necessary for a happy relationship. Men who are willing to share the power with their wives get to have a happier relationship. Men who are typically less able to express themselves and withdraw from fights result in having a partner who holds on to anger. The woman seeks closure around an issue and remains angry when the problem is not solved.
Anger, per se does not destroy a relationship. It is how people DO their anger that creates problems in couples. Happy families know how to settle disputes without leaving scars. Gottman’s research found the four behaviors that destroy a relationship/marriage are:
CRITICISM–blaming, finding fault, nit picking over small things
CONTEMPT –disgust, name-calling, cursing, and being hateful. Disgust over time builds up into the decision to separate
DEFENSIVENESS –not taking responsibility for own stuff, turning the blame back on your partner
STONEWALLING –refusing to deal with the issue, minimal zing the problem, inability to deal with conflict, walking away angry
Gottman can detect these four behaviors within the first 3 minutes of a conversation! He can predict with 96% accuracy, which marriages will succeed and which will fail from these first three minutes of the fight!
Anger is not the reason that couples break up. It is how each partner copes with threat and the types of anger responses they have learned! Gottman’s research offers proof that one of the best investments you can make in your life to preserve your relationship is to learn about anger management and conflict negotiation.
Flooding of Stress Related Hormones Often Side Track Problem Solving During Arguments
The level and intensity of anger that accompanies the sharing of the complaint predicts whether the issues will be addressed positively or not. Flooding of the hormones is the reason people cannot resolve conflict easily. The flooding causes hormonal and emotional arousal and is more typical in men. A huge amount of adrenalin is produced to give energy for the ‘fight or flight’ coping strategies of the cave men days. Gottman’s research shows that when pulse rate of one member of a couple that is fighting goes up 15 or 20 percent, they are flooded with adrenalin and other stress related hormones.
When the person becomes flooded, their fight or flight hormones are in charge and they lose it! Common sense goes out the window. They say and do stupid things in the heat of the adrenalin surge. Staying and arguing during flooding can be damaging to the relationship because people say and do things they do not mean to hurt the other person. They may have regrets later about what they said, or they may forget their hasty words. However, their partner becomes hurt and resentful and does not forget the mean words that were thrown at them in the heat of the moment.
Gottman believes that that during a fight if one or both partners increase their pulse rate from a normal pulse rate of 74 to 85 to 90, they are flooded. The flooding indicates they are feeling threatened or ‘in the presence of a feared object’ and their body acts just like the cave man did when faced with a saber toothed tiger. Once the arousal system becomes flooded (ready to fight or flee) there is no possibility of resolving the disagreement.
Gottman recommends that couples agree ahead of time to take a break when emotions get so high and nasty comments get out of control with high anger. Each person has the responsibility to call for a time out (make the referee sign as seen during football TV) when either one of them starts to feel the heat and start to go for the jugular vein. Time out away from the angry feelings is a powerful and useful strategy to help you be in control, not your hormonal high,
If things get hot during a fight, both partners should go away and do deep breathing, self-soothing, and stress management to cool off. They must agree to return to finish the discussion when they are more in control of their emotions. For some people, this is a short period of twenty minutes. For others, it may be several days before their mind works the issue through so they can be reasonable about the topic. People are different in how they react when they are threatened. Some need more time than others. The important thing is to remember to come back to discuss the issue.
Gottman’s research points out the importance of using a ‘soft’ as opposed to a ‘harsh’ start up when sharing a complaint in a marriage or relationship is a strong predictor of marital/relationship failure. Be ready to use a gentle introduction to talking about the issue. Let go of nit picking criticism whenever you can. Save your efforts for the big things that contribute to the unhealthy parts of the relationship.
Practice damage control by giving five positive communications to one negative communication. Healthy relationships have a ratio of 5 positive communications to 1 negative communication. Happy couples learn to do ‘positive sentiment override’ where they agree to practice damage control after an argument. They ‘repair’ efforts during a heated exchange over an issue to take the heat down.
Learn to define the problem as belonging to both of you‹not just your partner who should shape up. ‘Our issue is who should clean the house.’ ‘You never do your share of the work.’ sets the stage for defensiveness.
Stay in the present and do not bring in old examples of the times you were hurt by your partner’s behavior.
Really listen to what your partner says so that you can repeat it back to him. ‘What I heard you way was____’ Keep eye contact with your partner when you can. Keep your voice low and steady.
Stay focused on the issue to be solved. Do not go to personality digs. ‘The issue is how we ____.’
Validate what your partner says. ‘I can understand that because a similar thing happened to me once.
Ask for compromises. Brainstorm as many ideas as the two of you can to think of other options.
State with what you have agreed on at each step of the way. ‘Okay, we have agreed on the first point. Now the next item is____.’
Congratulate yourself when you do settle something. ‘Hey, that’s great. We got that out of the way.’ Read my article Formula for Fair Fighting
Choose Your Fights Wisely
Some fights are simply not resolvable, but are silly because each person tries to get the upper hand. This is a power struggle just for the sake of having a power struggle. One couple I knew had bitter fights over whose mother was the meanest! Some arguments can never be resolved because they are based on value differences between the couple that are so personal that they are not seen objectively.
Gottman says that two thirds of all arguments in a relationship never get solved! Only one third of all marital arguments are solvable on the average. No wonder we have so many problems when we are in relationship. So be willing to distinguish solvable from unsolvable problems. Make two lists of your problems: What can be negotiated and what cannot? What is most important to you; what can you let go? Unsolvable problems require different strategies for dealing with in relationships than solvable ones.
Invest In the Love Account of Your Relationship
Understand what your partner or spouse’ needs to feel loved. Express your appreciation, respect and admiration for your partner whenever you can. Build up a positive ‘emotional bank account’ with your partner by showing respect, listening, caring and being understanding, patience, forgiveness. Give your partner the attention, hugs, smiles and positive attention that he or she wants, not what feels good to you.
Continual courting each other is a key to continuing a happy marriage. Couples who were positive and affirming of each other achieve success in relationships. They do not take each other for granted and share sparks of intimacy during the day. They fight boredom in the relationship by doing small things that surprise and please their partner. They talk to each other and keep the dialogue going even when they are angry. They get professional help when things start to get rocky. They work to keep the intimacy flowing between them. For more information on John Gottmans’ research, read my other article The Relationship Cure on the website summarizing his latest book.
Developing Maturity in Love
Aware, mature love is the opposite of addiction. Authentic self-love is the precursor to loving another person in a healthy way according to Erich Fromm, a noted writer on love. Learning to appreciate and own your lovableness is the hallmark of maturity. Aware love equally values both the self and the other person and is based on friendship and caring. It is a mutual recognition of each partner’s right to grow and expand. It nourishes both partners and everyone who is around it.
Education and counseling are the answers to the goal of becoming your authentic self. Read books on codependency. I like Alice Miller’s book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, which explains how you gave up your sense of self as a child, usually to please a selfish parent.
To bring real changes into your life, you must think, feel and do something different! Recent research reveals that writing about problems is an inexpensive effective way of sorting out your problems. It is not enough just to read about how to change. Keep a journal of how you feel about what happens to you and how you deal with it. As the poet, Anne Sarton said, we can choose to write ourselves back in to sanity–to write ourselves sane! Sarton struggled with anger most of her life and wrote about it to express some of the pain in her life.
Examine those early childhood experiences that brought about the loss of your innocence resulting in the decision to become co-dependent. Examine those illusions you use to fuel the flames of unhealthy or unrequited love. Writing out the answers to these soul-wrenching questions will jar something loose in you. The feelings must be experienced and seen in new ways. Challenge your self and examine your definitions of unwholesome loving and dysfunctional behavior. This is your opportunity to help you discover your values and how to live them.
The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide for Building Better Communications for Family, Friends and Lovers by Gottman, John and DeClaire, Joan
Why Marriages Succeed and Fail by Gottman, John and Schwartz-Gottman, Julie
Getting the Love you Want: A Guide for Couples by Hendrix, Harville
Keeping the Love you Get: A Guide for Singles by Hendrix, Harville