Are you fighting too much?

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Several years ago one of the first models of therapy I learned for working with couples came from reading John Gottman's The Marriage Clinic.

Through the eyes of this model I learned something very basic...

It's not about how much you fight, it's about how you fight.

And, how you fight says a lot. Gottman explains that in his research of couples, looking at the balance of positivity and negativity in partner interactions was key. He states, "in all marriage people display the behaviors that are predictive of marital dissolution" (p. 36).

Wait a minute, functional couples still interact in ways that often lead to divorce? Yes, yes they do!

BUT, the difference between a functional couple and a dysfunctional couple is their repair attempts.

Functional couples make and employ effective repair attempts during conflict (more on this later).

Let's take this a step further. The next big development by Gottman was that his research on couples' conflict led to his development that the ratio of negativity to positivity of couples in conflict can predict marital outcome. Specifically, he suggests that happy marriages are not without negativity, but rather they have more positivity than negativity during conflict. Through his research he made a few observations:

1. Women starting a conversation harshly, which is moving from neutral to negative affect, is associated with instability and divorce.

2. Men are more likely to withdraw emotionally; women are more likely to criticize.

I'm only on page 40 out of a 452 page book! Eek! I need to hurry this summary up! SO...

Gottman took this data and started to wonder, is all negativity the same? This led to a concept called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which are: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. And incase you are wondering:

all negativity is NOT the same. 

Criticism is the first piece in conflict. And, criticism is different than complaining. Gottman says the blame inherently behind criticism is where the problem remains.

Next, is defensiveness, which is just like it sounds: a stance of "warding off a personal attack" (p. 45). It can include becoming a victim "I never get any appreciation" or denying responsibility "if you would've done the dishes than maybe I wouldn't have snapped at dinner!"

The third piece is contempt: putting yourself on a higher plane than your partner (p. 45). Oddly enough, Gottman found in his research that a certain amount of contempt in husbands was predictive of illness in wives over the next four years - weird huh?

Finally, stonewalling, which is where the listener withdraws from the interaction (p. 46). Most stonewallers are men and when women stonewall it is quite predictive of divorce... uh-oh!

Now that you know the four horsemen, here's where it counts:

the four horsemen usually come in sequence and contempt is the best predictor of divorce.

Gottman believes everyone has these reactions at different points in time; however (back to the repair attempts) repair attempts are what keeps couples together.

What is a repair attempt? Essentially, being your own therapist. Soothing each other, commenting on the conflict, softening, or reaching out to touch your partner. You can facilitate repair attempts in a variety of ways.

Marriage is no joke! If you are playing the four horsemen game with your partner, it's going to have an effect on your marriage...and not a good one!

Now, before I throw too much at you at once, I think now is a good time to take a break so we can ask ourselves some questions?

In your marriage, do you:

(1) have conflict with your partner?
(2) what does it look like? Which horsemen are you most likely to display? Which horsemen is your partner most likely to display?
(3) do you have more positivity than negativity during your conflict?
(4) do you make genuine repair attempts?

Take a good hard look at how you FIGHT in your marriage. This, my friend, is the best predictor of your long-term outcomes...NOT how much you fight. 

-Dr. K