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6 Mistakes to Avoid When Arguing with Your Partner, Experts Say


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If there’s one thing that Drs. John and Julie Gottman want every couple to know, it’s that fighting is normal. In fact, Julie tells SheKnows, 69 percent of all problems within a relationship are what the Gottmans call perpetual issues, meaning they don’t necessarily get solved… ever. “Don’t freak out about it,” says Julie, a clinical psychologist. “It’s normal.”

The Gottmans are both relationship experts, cofounders of The Gottman Institute, and co-authors of multiple bestselling books on love and marriage, so they know a few things about couples in conflict. Now they’re sharing that knowledge in their new book, Fight Right: How Successful Couples Turn Conflict Into Connection, which has a simple but revolutionary thesis: that fighting with your partner, far from being a bad thing, is actually an opportunity for emotional intimacy. “Conflict has a goal,” says John, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington. “The goal is mutual understanding, as opposed to winning… It’s really a way we can get closer.” In other words, an argument with your partner isn’t a battle with a winner and a loser; it’s a collaboration, a way to connect.

It’s a nice way to think about it, but how do you actually do that in real life, when your blood’s boiling, your voice is raised, and this person you love looks more like an adversary? The Gottmans boiled down their decades of research into a few tangible tips for turning your arguments into moments of connection, and while doing so, they also unearthed several common mistakes preventing that from happening. Below, check out six things to avoid in your next argument with your partner and what to do instead.

Fight Right: How Successful Couples Turn Conflict Into Connection

Mistake #1: You’re coming in too hot.

The beginning of your argument or conflict conversation is extremely important, and not only for how the conversation is going to go. According to their research, Julie says, “the first three minutes of a conflict conversation predict with 96 percent accuracy how the rest of that conversation is going to go, and also [with 90 percent accuracy]… how the rest of the relationship is going to go,” up to six years down the line. That’s a lot of pressure to put on those first three minutes, but the Gottmans say there’s a formula that can help you succeed — and a few things to avoid.

Many people enter a conflict conversation by “dropping a bomb”: lobbing a verbal grenade and launching a surprise attack on their partner. This can look like harsh criticism of your partner (“You’re such a slob”), jumping into what they’re doing wrong (“Why can’t you just do the dishes for once?”), or piling on any other issues that have been bothering you, aka “kitchen sinking” (“I shouldn’t be surprised — it’s not like you ever do laundry or clean up after the kids.”).

Instead, the Gottmans suggest starting with a strategy they’ve observed in their most successful couples, aka the “masters of love.” There are three parts to it:

Start with your feelings: Whether you’re upset, stressed, angry, or sad, say what you’re feeling before you even get to talking about your partner.

State the situation that’s causing the feeling. Julie emphasizes that you want to point out a situation here (the dishes aren’t done), not a personality flaw of your partner (the dishes aren’t done because your partner is lazy).

Say what you need in a positive way. The Gottmans call this a positive need, meaning, you’re not telling your partner to stop doing something, but rather what they can do to fix the issue. It’s the difference between “Stop being so lazy” and “Can you do the dishes while I’m putting the kids to bed?” Your partner becomes your collaborator rather than your adversary.

Put together, this would look something like: “It stresses me out when you don’t do the dishes after I’ve cooked all evening. Would you mind starting on them while I put the kids to bed?” The conversation will be much more productive when your partner doesn’t feel attacked right out of the gate.

Mistake #2: You’re staying in the shallows

Remember those perpetual problems that are at the heart of most of our arguments with our partners? Just because they can’t be perfectly solved doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk about them. There is often a core need, or what the Gottmans call a dream, at the heart of these perpetual problem gridlocks, something extremely important to one or both partners that hasn’t been unearthed or articulated.

Unless an issue is purely logistical, don’t stay on the surface. When you’re in conflict with your partner, Julie explains, it’s so important to “pause to deeply understand your partner’s position on something, including understanding what values are connected to it and what personal history might be connected.” For each partner, what’s the ideal outcome in this situation, “and is there some sense of life, purpose, or meaning attach to their position on this issue?” It’s crucial to understand the depths behind your differences in opinions before you even start moving toward resolving them.

Mistake #3: You’re compromising your core needs.

Relatedly, compromising is an important step to resolving an issue, but it’s crucial that the compromise doesn’t infringe upon one of your core needs or dreams. “If you give up a core need, then the compromise will be sabotaged,” John explains. “It won’t work. So you have to understand what each person’s core need is, and you have to protect that before you get into a solution to the problem.”

And yes, this means that some problems may not be resolved — and that some relationships, ultimately, won’t work out because of it. If one partner’s dream is to have children and the other’s is to stay childless, well, there’s no way to compromise on that without one partner sacrificing their dream. That leads to dissatisfaction, resentment, and an unhappy relationship — one that might be better off ending, so both partners can build the life they want.

Drs. Julie and John Gottman
Gottman Inc

Mistake #4: You’re on the negative side of the Magic Ratio.

The Gottmans’ research on couples’ conflicts revealed that couples who stay together happily are able to maintain a ratio of 5:1 positive to negative interactions in their arguments — in other words doing five positive things for every negative thing.

A positive interaction, in this case, could be as small as a nod or an acknowledgment that the partner is listening (like “I never thought of that” or “good point”), a gesture of affection or validation, or a moment of shared humor, interest or curiosity in what the other person is saying. Negative things might be expressions of angry criticism, defensiveness, contempt, or giving the silent treatment (more on those in a minute). The Gottmans’ “masters of love” would have a 5:1 ratio (or better) of positive to negative during an argument; the couples who ended up separating or staying together unhappily “had a ratio that averaged 0.8:1 — more negativity than positivity,” John explained. It’s important to have more positivity than negativity because the hurt of negative interactions and comments has a more lasting effect than positive ones, he says. “A lot more positivity has to be there to balance a negative.”

You can shift a conflict to the positive side, the Gottmans say, by making a repair attempt, which they define in Fight Right as “any comment or action that counteracts the negativity in a fight and prevents a conversation from escalating.” Repair attempts might include:

  • Apologizing
  • Empathizing with or validating your partner’s experience
  • Expressing admiration for your partner
  • Injecting humor into the conversation
  • Making a positive gesture, like nodding or reaching for your partner’s hand

Crucially, both partners need to be open to a repair attempt, both the one making the attempt and the one responding to it.

Mistake #5: You’re being critical, contemptuous, defensive, or stonewalling.

The Gottmans call criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, because couples who exhibited these behaviors during conflict “were likely to split an average of five years post-wedding,” they write. These are the behaviors on the negative end of the magic ratio, the ones you want to avoid as much as possible.

What makes these behaviors so hurtful? For starters, Julie says, criticism “is a way of saying, ‘You’re not worthy of my love.’” It’s the opposite of showing love to a partner — you’re expressing how much you don’t love them and the specific things that you don’t like. It triggers insecurity and “can be very painful for people to hear, because it counteracts their basic need to be loved and to be respected.”

Contempt is the same thing, but done from a position of superiority. “That feels even worse,” Julie says. “[Contempt] is sulfuric acid on a relationship.”

Defensiveness, then, is a natural response to feeling attacked through criticism or contempt, an attempt to shield ourselves from the pain by reflecting it back on our partner. Stonewalling, meanwhile, happens when someone “completely shuts down” and is no longer able or willing to continue the conversation. “That signals to the other person, ‘They don’t wanna hear me. Maybe I’m being rejected,’” Julie explains, triggering feelings of abandonment or loneliness on the part of the person being stonewalled, when what they’re looking for is connection and communication.

Defensiveness and stonewalling often occur in moments of emotional flooding (more on that in a second), Julie adds, meaning that calling for a break — or, in the case of defensiveness, acknowledging to your partner that you’re feeling defensive — can defuse the situation and allow both of you to come back when the Four Horsemen aren’t quite so powerful.

Mistake #6: You’re getting flooded with emotion.

Maintaining the positive ratio and avoiding the Four Horsemen sounds simple enough until you’re actually in the argument, getting angry and frustrated with your partner. The Gottmans call this “flooding.” Similar to “fight or flight” mode, flooding occurs when we get “overwhelmed in conflict, hijacked by our own nervous system in response to negativity from our partners,” the Gottmans write. Flooding doesn’t mean you’re making a mistake per se, as it’s a natural reaction that many of us experience during conflict, but what you do when you’re getting flooded can determine the outcome of your argument and relationship. “When we see a pattern of flooding in a couple… we know that without intervention, they’re headed for a split,” the Gottmans write. That’s because, when you’re flooded, “you’re incapable of fighting right.” You just can’t process information, hear what your partner is saying, and respond instinctively with something negative.

If this experience sounds familiar, the first thing to do is recognize your own personal signs of flooding, which can include shortness of breath, elevated heart rate, face redness, or muscle tightness. If you start to feel any of these, Julie says, call for a break in the fight. When you do this, “everything needs to stop on a dime,” she explains. Then, tell your partner when you’ll come back to talk about it again; Julie says the break should last a minimum of 30 minutes and no longer than 24 hours.

While you’re taking your break, resist the urge to think about the fight or plan what you’re going to say when you come back; that’s just going to keep you in that flooded state. “Instead, you need to do something self-soothing,” Julie says, like exercising, going for a walk, doing yoga, listening to music, reading, doing email — anything that “gets your mind off the fight so that your body has a chance to metabolize the adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormones that have flooded your blood supply,” she says.

When you and your partner reconvene, “typically you’ll be much more calm and gentle,” Julie says, which means you’ll be more capable of initiating repair attempts and interacting on the positive side of that magic ratio.

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