Gottman, John M., and Nan Silver. (1999). “Principle 5: Solve your solvable problems,” in The seven principles for making marriages work (Chapter Eight, 157-185). New York: Three Rivers Press (Random House, Inc.).
It stands to reason that when a husband and wife respect each other and are open to each other’s point of view, they have a good basis for resolving any differences that arise. And yet too often couples lose their way when trying to persuade each other or settle disagreements.
Plenty of the people Gottman studied who had enviable, loving relationships did not follow the experts’ rules of communication (e.g., active listening) when they argued. But they were still able to resolve their conflicts.
By studying intently what these couples did do, Gottman came up with a new model for resolving conflict in a loving relationship. His fifth principle entails the following steps:
1. Soften your startup
2. Learn to make and receive repair attempts
3. Soothe yourself and each other
5. Be tolerant of each other’s faults
These steps take very little “training” because we all pretty much have these skills already; we just get out of the habit of using them in our most intimate relationship.
To a certain degree, this principle comes down to having good manners. It means treating your spouse with the same respect you offer to company.
If a guest leaves an umbrella, we say, “Here. You forgot your umbrella.” We would never think of saying, “What’s wrong with you? You are constantly forgetting things. Be a little more thoughtful, for goodness sake! What am I, your slave to go picking up after you?” We are sensitive to the guest’s feelings, even if things don’t go so well.
It is not an infrequent phenomenon to be in the midst of a bitter dispute when the phone rings. The husband or wife picks up the ringing telephone and is suddenly all smiles: “Oh, hi. Yes, it would be great to have lunch. No problem, Tuesday would be fine. Oh, I am so sorry to hear that you didn’t get the job. You must feel so disappointed,” and so on. Suddenly the angry, rigid spouse has been transformed into a flexible, rational, understanding, and compassionate being — until the phone call is over. Then he or she just as suddenly morphs back into someone scowling and immovable all for the partner’s benefit.
Keep in mind, as you work your way through these steps, that what’s really being asked of you is no more than would be asked if you were dealing with an acquaintance, much less the person who has vowed to share his or her life with you.
STEP 1: SOFTEN YOUR STARTUP
Perhaps the most important quality of any exchange is the virtual absence of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling — those hallmarks of marriage-harming conflict.
A harsh startup usually begins the cycle of the four horsemen, which leads to flooding and, in turn, increased emotional distance and loneliness that lets the marriage wither.
Only 40 percent of the time do couples divorce because they are having frequent, devastating fights. More often marriages end because, to avoid constant skirmishes, husband and wife distance themselves so much that their friendship and sense of connection are lost.
Soft startups don’t have to be diplomatic. They just need to be direct complaints rather than criticisms or contemptuous accusations.
Softening the startup is crucial to resolving conflicts because, Gottman’s research finds, discussions invariably end on the same note they begin. That’s why 96 percent of the time Gottman can predict the fate of a conflict discussion in the first three minutes! If you start an argument harshly — meaning you attack your spouse verbally — you’ll end up with at least as much tension as you began.
If you use a softened startup the discussion is likely to be productive. And if most of your arguments start softly, your marriage is likely to be stable and happy.
Although either spouse can be responsible for a harsh startup Gottman has found that the vast majority of the time the culprit is the wife. This is because in our culture the wife is far more likely than her husband to bring up difficult issues and push to get them resolved. Husbands are more likely to try to distance themselves from hard-to-face concerns.
There are physiological reasons for this gender gap. Men tend to experience flooding much more easily because their bodies are more reactive to emotional stress than their wives’. So they are more inclined to avoid confrontation.
While the wife is usually responsible for a harsh startup, the key to avoiding it is for both of you to work together on the first four principles. Do this, and the wife’s startup will soften in the process. If a spouse tends to raise issues harshly, make sure she (or he) is feeling known, respected, and loved by you, and that you accept her influence.
If you are the one most responsible for harsh startups in your relationship, it can’t be emphasized enough how important it is to the fate of your marriage to soften up.
Remember: If you go straight for the jugular, you’re going to draw plenty of blood. The result will be war or retreat on your partner’s part, rather than any kind of meaningful, productive discussion.
If you’re angry with your spouse, it’s worth taking a deep breath and thinking through how to broach the subject before leaping in. It will be easier to do this if you constantly remind yourself that by being gentle, you are more likely to resolve the conflict. If you feel too angry to discuss the matter gently, your best option is not to discuss it at all until you’ve calmed down.
Here are some suggestions to ensure that your startup is soft:
Complain but don’t blame. You can be confrontational without going on the attack. Simply complain about a particular situation, not your partner’s personality or character. However justified you may feel in blaming your spouse, this approach is not productive. Even if it does lead your partner to what you want him to do, it also leads to increased tension, resentment, defensiveness, and so on.
Make statements that start with “I” instead of “You.” Phrases starting with “I” are usually less likely to be critical and to make the listener defensive than statements starting with you.
“You are careless with money,” versus “I want us to save more.”
“You just don’t care about me,” versus “I’m feeling neglected.”
If your words focus on how you’re feeling rather than on accusing your spouse, your discussion will be far more successful.
Describe what is happening, don’t evaluate or judge. Instead of accusing or blaming, just describe what you see. Instead of “You never watch the baby,” say, “I seem to be the only one chasing after Charlie today.” Again, this will help prevent your spouse from feeling attacked and waging a defense rather than really considering your point.
Be clear. Don’t expect your partner to be a mind reader. Instead of “You left the dining room a total mess,” say, “I’d appreciate it if you would clean your stuff off the dining room table.” Instead of “Would you take care of the baby for once?” say, “Please change Emmy’s diaper and give her a bottle.”
Be polite. Add phrases such as “please” and “I would appreciate it if…”
Be appreciative. If your partner has, at some point, handled this situation better, then couch your request within an appreciation of what your partner did right in the past and how much you miss that now. Instead of “You never have time for me anymore,” say, “Remember how we used to go out every Saturday night? I loved spending so much time alone with you. And it felt so good knowing that you wanted to be with me, too. Let’s start doing that again.”
Don’t store things up. It’s hard to be gentle when you’re ready to burst with recriminations [to accuse in return; to counter one accusation with another]. So don’t wait too long before bringing up an issue — otherwise it will just escalate in your mind.
When you switch to a soft startup, your spouse may not automatically react so sweetly. He or she may still be anticipating criticism or contempt from you and therefore respond negatively. Don’t give up or fall into the trap of then escalating the conflict. Continue to broach the topic gently, and eventually you will see a change in how your spouse responds, especially if you are working on all of the other aspects of Principle 5 together.
STEP 2: LEARN TO MAKE AND RECEIVE REPAIR ATTEMPTS
When you take driving lessons, the first thing you’re taught is how to stop the car. Putting on the brakes is an important skill in a marriage, too. When your discussion starts off on the wrong foot, or you find yourself in an endless cycle of recriminations, you can prevent a disaster if you know how to stop. Gottman calls these brakes repair attempts. They deescalate the tension so you will be more receptive to finding a compromise.
What separates stable, emotionally intelligent marriages from others is that their repair attempts get through to their spouse. This is because the air between them hasn’t been clouded by a lot of negativity.
GETTING THE MESSAGE THROUGH
The key factor in whether a repair attempt is effective is the state of the relationship. In happy marriages, couples send and receive repair attempts with ease. In unhappy ones, even the most eloquent repair attempt can fall on deaf ears.
Start hearing each other’s repair attempts by focusing intently on these “brakes” and training each other to recognize when one is sent your way. Your future can be bright even if your disagreements tend to be very negative. The secret is learning the right kind of damage control.
One reason couples miss each other’s repair attempts is that they don’t always come sugarcoated. If your spouse yells, “You’re getting off the topic!” or grumbles, “Can we take a break?” that’s a repair attempt despite the negative delivery. If you listen to your partner’s tone rather than the words, you could miss his real message, which is “Stop! This is getting out of hand.” Because repair attempts can be difficult to hear if your relationship is engulfed in negativity, the best strategy is to make your attempts obviously formal in order to emphasize them. [See lists of scripted phrases in text.]
When your partner announces a repair attempt, your job is simply to try to accept it. View the interruption as a bid to make things better. Accept the attempt in the spirit in which it was intended. This entails accepting your partner’s influence. For example, if he or she says, “I need to finish what I’m saying,” acknowledge that need and then encourage your partner to keep talking to you.
As you continue to use the list, eventually you might consider replacing it with some other ritual, like raising your hand and announcing point-blank, “This is a repair attempt!” Or you may come up with other effective repairs that better fit your personality and relationship.
Step 3: SOOTHE YOURSELF AND EACH OTHER
In less stable marriages, conflict discussions can trigger flooding. When this occurs, you feel overwhelmed both emotionally and physically. It is harder for a man’s body to calm down after an argument than a woman’s.
Most likely you think thoughts of righteous indignation (“I don’t have to take this anymore”) or innocent victimhood (“Why is she always picking on me?”). Meanwhile, your body is in distress. Usually your heart is pounding, you’re sweating, you’re holding your breath. If your heart rate exceeds 100 beats per minute you won’t be able to hear what your spouse is trying to tell you no matter how hard you try.
In the vast majority of cases, when one spouse does not “get” the other’s repair attempt, it’s because the listener is flooded and therefore can’t really hear what the spouse is saying. When you’re in this condition, the most thoughtful repair attempt in the world won’t benefit your marriage.
The first step is to stop the discussion. If you keep going, you’ll find yourself exploding at your spouse or imploding (stonewalling), neither of which will get you anywhere other than one step farther down the marital cascades that lead to divorce.
The only reasonable strategy, therefore, is to let your spouse know that you’re feeling flooded and need to take a break. That break should last at least twenty minutes, since it will be that long before your body calms down. It’s crucial that during this time you avoid thoughts of righteous indignation and innocent victimhood.
Spend your time doing something soothing and distracting, like listening to music or exercising. Many people find that the best approach to self-soothing is to focus on calming the body through a meditative technique. [See text for a simple one.]
Soothing Each Other
Once you’ve calmed yourself, you can benefit your marriage enormously if you then take some time to calm each other. Obviously this can be quite difficult to do if you’re feeling very angry or hurt. But the results can be so impressive that it’s worth trying. Remember: Only do this after you’ve already spent twenty minutes calming down on your own.
Soothing your partner is of enormous benefit to a marriage because it’s really a form of reverse conditioning. In other words, if you frequently have the experience of being calmed by your spouse, you will stop seeing your partner as a trigger of stress in your life and instead associate him or her with feeling relaxed. This automatically increases the positivity in your relationship.
There are many different ways to calm your spouse. What matters most is that your partner determines the method and enjoys it.
STEP 4: COMPROMISE
The only solution to marital problems is to find a compromise. In an intimate, loving relationship it just doesn’t work for either of you to get things all your way, even if you’re convinced that you’re right.
This approach would create such inequity and unfairness that the marriage would suffer.
Usually, though both partners do make an earnest effort to compromise on issues, they fail because they go about trying to compromise in the wrong way. Negotiation is possible only after you’ve followed the steps above — softening startup, repairing your discussion, and keeping calm. These prime you for compromise by getting you into a positive mode.
Before you try to resolve a conflict, remember that the cornerstone of any compromise is the fourth principle of marriage — accepting influence. This means that for a compromise to work, you can’t have a closed mind to your spouse’s opinions and desires. You don’t have to agree with everything your spouse says or believes, but you have to be honestly open to considering his or her position. That’s what accepting influence is really all about.
If you find yourself sitting with your arms folded and shaking your head no (or just thinking it) when your spouse is trying to talk out a problem with you, your discussion will never get anywhere.
Men have a harder time accepting influence from their wives than vice versa. But whatever your gender, an inability to be open-minded is a real liability when it comes to conflict resolution.
Realize that it may take time and continued self-awareness to break out of this tendency. Your spouse can assist you in seeing things from his or her perspective. Ask your spouse questions to help you see his or her point of view. Remember to search for the part of your spouse’s perspective that, by objective standards, is reasonable.
Often compromise is just a matter of talking out your differences and preferences in a systematic way.
Remember the aikido principle of yielding to win — the more able you are to compromise, the better able you’ll be to persuade your spouse.
STEP 5: BE TOLERANT OF EACH OTHER’S FAULTS
Too often, a marriage gets bogged down in “if onlies.” If only your spouse were taller, richer, smarter, neater, or sexier, all of your problems would vanish. As long as this attitude prevails, conflicts will be very difficult to resolve.
Until you accept your partner’s flaws and foibles, you will not be able to compromise successfully. Instead, you will be on a relentless campaign to alter your spouse. Conflict resolution is not about one person changing, it’s about negotiating, finding common ground and ways that you can accommodate each other.
SAMPLE EXAM ITEMS
ONE. According to Gottman, more often than not, marriages end because husband and wife
a. are having frequent, devastating fights
b. ignore the presence of the Four Horsemen until it is too late to repair their relationship
c. distance themselves from each other so much that their friendship and sense of connection are lost
d. have different interests, which gradually draw them apart
TWO. Which of the following steps belong to Gottman’s principle for solving solvable problems?
1. soften your startup
2. restrain the Four Horsemen
3. learn to make and receive repair attempts
4. soothe yourself and each other
6. be tolerant of each other’s faults
a. 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6
b. 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6
c. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6
d. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6
e. 1, 2, 4, and 5
f. 2, 4, 5, and 6Type your paragraph here.
David C. Lichti, LMFT