You probably know how it goes. You’ve each had a stressful day, the boss was unreasonable, the kids were playing up, and the one thing you’ve been looking forward to is the respite of seeing your partner again. They’ll make you a cup of tea, listen to how your day’s been, take the kids off your hands for half an hour, or simply give you the time and space to decompress. And afterwards, when you’re a bit rested and restored, you can start the evening’s round of bath, bed, story, dinner and maybe 30 minutes Netflix before you collapse into bed before starting all over again tomorrow (providing the kids sleep through). But the support you want, and the support your partner wants, seem incompatible. You walk in the door and they start telling you everything that’s happened before you have a chance to say “Hi honey, I’m home”. They walk in the door and don’t want to interact at all and disappear to bury themselves in their phone like an uncommunicative adolescent. It’s painful and dispiriting for each of you and quite likely to set the scene for a massive row.
Perhaps the above scenario is familiar, perhaps not – we all have our own version of what sets us up for conflict and what sets us off. Most couples fight at least some of the time and are often not terribly kind to each other when they do. John Gottman suggests that in successful relationships it is not the fact that we fight that is the problem, it’s the way that fights are handled. But conflict doesn’t just come out of the blue. It can be seen as part of a repeating cycle of rupture and repair. The couples that get it right learn from this cycle and use it to enhance intimacy; the couples that don’t seem doomed to repeat it in ever decreasing circles of misery and frustration.
Figure 1 shows a proposed pathway from harmony to disharmony via relationship ruptures, and the pathway from dissatisfaction back to satisfaction via a process of repair. Understanding this process could help us find a way to make our relationship more harmonious and our fights less destructive. We would then spend less time in a state of disharmony and know how to recover from conflict more quickly when it does occur. If we fail to understand it, and change it, then we could end up in the unhappy state that some couples arrive at where they spend very little time in a state of satisfaction and find it easy to be dislodged back into disharmony, from which they then find it very hard to escape.
The anatomy of a satisfying relationship
Starting on the far left of the diagram, it might be useful to think about how we would recognise a harmonious relationship and couples can do to keep things that way. Everyone has their own version of a satisfying relationship and the things that keep them there. Take a moment to think about what you notice in your relationship when you are feeling satisfied. What image comes to mind? How does it make you feel? Think about the things each of you does that helps maintain that state of satisfaction and harmony. If you were a fly on the wall, what would you notice is going on?
Sue Johnson claims that relationships are harmonious when a couple get their fundamental needs for attachment security met. This means that the relationship, in effect, becomes a safe haven to which we can safely return from the struggles of life. It is also a secure base from which to explore the world around us. Johnson identifies three key qualities in how partners relate to each other that helps create a sense of safety and security: being accessible, emotionally engaged and responsive to each other. Being accessible means that we are there for each other when we are needed; being emotionally engaged means that we can detect when one of us is unhappy or discontented; being responsive means providing the support that is wanted at the time it is needed.
Other authors suggest that attachment security is not the only, or even most important, factor at play in adult relationships. For example, Leslie Greenberg states that in addition to providing attachment security, a relationship supports our preferred identity (e.g. as a kind or caring person) and makes us feel liked or appreciated, which enhances our self-esteem. John Gottman talks about how a relationship helps create shared meaning (e.g. the relationship as a place to raise a family). It is also a way for each partner to help the other achieve important life goals thanks to the support each provides for the other. To the extent that a relationship provides an optimal level of closeness and security for each partner, supports each partner’s identity, becomes a place in which we feel liked and appreciated, provides support for each partner to achieve important goals, and helps give meaning to life’s most important tasks, the stage is set for a trusting and committed intimate companionship.
Maintaining satisfaction and harmony
A state of harmony is likely to be self-sustaining, up to a point, because when we feel content it is likely to make us more forgiving and understanding of minor transgressions or times when our partner falls short of our hopes and expectations. Attribution theory notes that when we feel positive we are more likely to explain our partner’s failings as the result of external circumstances (e.g. a hard day at work) than personal failings (e.g. being a selfish person). But that would be unlikely to be enough on its own to sustain relationship happiness. We also need to put some effort into the relationship to cultivate warm feelings and a sense of connection that enhances feelings of commitment, intimacy and passion. Behavioural couple therapists emphasise the importance of good communication to head off potential problems or solve conflict when it arises combined with self-care, companionship activities, and caring gestures. Communicating openly about potential areas of conflict when the relationship is going well, and working together to solve problems before they become entrenched, enables couples to anticipate difficulties or air grievances without getting bogged down in the specifics of a recent conflict. Unfortunately, couples with a history of difficult conflicts are likely to avoid having those conversations when things are going well precisely because they perceive the relationship peace as a fragile state and don’t want to rock the boat.
Self-care is important because it shows that you don’t expect your partner to take care of everything for you and that you are willing to look after yourself physically and emotionally. Companionship activities (i.e. activities you do together) seem to work well when they are in the form of domestic rituals. A good example is the everyday rituals of leaving and greeting through touch and talk, kissing and hugging and telling each other that you love one another. These are ways of letting each other know that you are important to one another and helping cement trust in the enduring nature of your attachment. Rituals need to be distinguished from routines. Routines are rituals that have become devoid of emotional significance and can demonstrate a lack of interest or care in each other as they become stale and stultifying. Sex is a good example. If sex becomes part of a routine, it runs the risk of becoming more of a chore than a pleasure. If it becomes part of the way that a couple connect at a physical and emotional level to renew their bonds of affection, liking, and attraction, then it enhances an already happy relationship.
Caring gestures are more direct, selfless gestures of care and appreciation. They are not done for any direct payback, and work best when they are done frequently (although not necessarily regularly) and are low-cost but emotionally significant. Tailoring your caring gesture so that it reflects something that your partner will genuinely experience as loving is an art that relies on a good understanding of each other’s wants and desires. Gary Chapman describes five “love languages” that are ways to express and experience love. They are: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, qualities time, and, physical touch. There are all sorts of tests that you can take online to determine your preferred “love language” but it would probably be just as reliable to ask your partner what makes them feel loved and cared about, and to tell them what you like. Do be sensitive to the meaning that the other person gives to their caring gestures. If you’re not particularly moved by acts of service, but your partner sees that as part of their raison d’être, you could inadvertently cause hurt and disappointment if the issue isn’t handled sensitively.
John Gottman talks about three specific activities as part of the “sound relationship house” model: building “love maps” i.e. showing an interest in your partner’s life and experience outside of the relationship; sharing fondness and admiration for each other; and turning towards your partner when they make a “bid for connection” or attempt to attract your attention. These all show your partner that they are important to you and thus make them feel valued. Guy Bodenmann talks about the destructive impact of chronic, low-level stress and emphasises the importance of managing stress together through developing couple coping strategies. A common complaint in unhappy couples is that “we don’t feel like a team”, so learning to be a team that works well together through developing good problem-solving skills can be an important asset. Good teamwork means providing each other with practical and emotional support, making decisions fairly and equitably, delegating important tasks where appropriate, and remaining flexible in the face of life’s challenges.
No matter how much effort we put into maintain a state of harmony and satisfaction life is bound to present us with challenges. Life’s challenges can take a variety of forms, some predictable, others unexpected. For example, major acute stresses might include redundancy or bereavement; a major chronic stress could be a debilitating illness such as diabetes; a minor acute stress might be something as seemingly trivial as a particularly bad day at work; a minor chronic stress might be needing to get different children to different activities at roughly the same time every Saturday morning. As well as external stresses, couples can experience internal stresses, from potential catastrophes (such as one partner having an affair) to the more attritional (such as not being able to agree how much time to spend with each other’s family and on which important occasions). The impact of stress depends on how burdensome it is, the level of resilience we have, and the support available to us. Every individual stress is likely to have consequences for the relationship because it depletes the couple of the resources they need to remain resilient. For example, if one person needs to commute a long distance, or stay late at work, or has to bring work home, it makes them less available to their partner both practically and emotionally.
Each of us has important needs and expectations. No mater how finely tuned we are to each other’s moods and sensitivities, we are not mind readers, so we are bound to wander into relationship minefields and end up upsetting each other. Relationship minefields often relate to areas of personal sensitivity. We all have personalities that have been shaped by our formative years. As a consequence, we might be disposed towards seeing ourselves as stable, secure, lovable and competent people living in a world that will generally provide us with what we want and need for a satisfying life. Or, we might be disposed to see ourselves as incompetent, unlovable, deprived, abused, or neglected and expect life to be a struggle as the world only provides in very unreliable and conditional ways the things we need to feel a sense of worth and security. We are all likely to have some areas of sensitivity, or have standards and values that we see as absolute (for example regarding trust and betrayal). When our insecurities are triggered, our assumptions overturned, or our standards are violated, we are likely to become very upset and may react strongly to the situation. In other words, every relationship comes with built in areas of potential conflict: John Gottman calls these “perpetual problems” and they typically reflect important differences in personality, expectations, values or beliefs. Often these only become apparent after the honeymoon period of intense attraction has faded and the “work” of maintaining a relationship in the face of competing demands has taken over.
Dissatisfaction and disharmony
Relationship stresses are likely to strain a couple and can result in ruptures in the closeness of the bond that couples feel for each other. They are like tears in the carefully woven fabric of trust and commitment that make us feel secure. When couples experience a rupture, they get thrown into a state of unhappiness, dissatisfaction or disharmony. In couples whose fights are particularly mean and who make and receive few attempts to mitigate the damage, fights can be very destructive. Especially damaging are the “four horsemen” of the relationship apocalypse, criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. Criticism refers to character assassination; defensiveness is a refusal to take responsibility for your part in the dispute or to be influenced by your partner; contempt is the expression of disgust towards one’s partner; and, stonewalling is emotional withdrawal that can mask a high level of distress or physiological arousal (taking the pulse of someone who seems outwardly calm often tells a different story to the blank face and cold eyes). All of the horsemen are deeply unhelpful. Women seem to suffer particularly from getting frozen out by their partner, which can be especially common in heterosexual relationships where men are socialised not to show negative emotions that might signal vulnerability i.e. everything except anger. But contempt is the worst offender, leading John Gottman to claim that he can predict a couple’s likelihood of future separation with a very high level of accuracy simply on the basis of seeing a particular type of sneering facial gesture.
When we are not getting important needs met by our relationship, or we perceive a problem, it is likely that one partner will raise the issue. Attempts to influence each other are strategies to get one’s partner to give us more of what we want (e.g. time, attention, love, respect or sex) or less of what we don’t want (e.g. criticism, complaint, excessive responsibility or burdensome tasks). With a responsive partner who is open to hearing these requests, couples can often solve certain problems and maintain a dialogue about other, more intractable issues. Couples who get stuck in disharmony have often moved from attempts to influence each other to strategies that look more like coercion, bullying or blackmail. A recurring pattern of failed attempts to change your partner leads to mutual alienation (for example, feelings of intense loneliness), vilification (for example, thinking that “there’s something wrong with you”), polarisation (for example, noticing that “we’re further apart than ever”), generalisation (for example, believing that “we can’t agree on anything any more”) and powerlessness (for example, fearing that “we’re stuck and there’s nothing I can do”). Attempts to repair things can feel temporary or only lead to a fragile truce that sets the scene for further ruptures. Couples end up in a “mutual trap” where nothing they do seems to make things better, but doing nothing is not an option either. This is a very painful state for a relationship to find itself and is often the time when couples might either separate or seek support from a qualified and experienced professional therapist.
Before things get to a stage of entrenched ill-will and infighting, there are a number of things that couples can do to help themselves. Understanding the inevitability of conflict and why arguments happen is a good first step and Dan Wile describes the anatomy of these fights in great detail (see my short post here). John Gottman also proposes a number of remedies for the four horsemen: 1) raising valid concerns in a less personal and attacking manner, 2) taking responsibility, 3) building a culture of appreciation and fondness, and 4) self-soothing before attempting to communicate. These remedies take time and conscious effort as couples learn to spot these behaviours when they show up, name them, and take responsibility not to use them, whatever the perceived provocation.
The idea of “repair attempts” in conflict has been especially important in understanding what matters about the way that couples manage conflict. The research suggests that when couples employ a range of repair attempts during conflict, they have fewer arguments, and their fights are likely to be less long-lasting and less damaging to the relationship. John Gottman has produced a list of repair strategies that couples can use when they are fighting. He describes repair attempts as “any statement or action — silly or otherwise — that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.” You can find a repair checklist of suggested phrases (just search “Gottman repair checklist” in your favourite search engine). While I’m not sure how comfortable I’d be using some of the suggested phrases, I do find the overall categories useful. I’ve paraphrased the categories and added my own suggestions for things we might say to de-escalate conflict (but please come up with your own ideas using your own language):
- Expressing how you feel during the argument (e.g. “I’m feeling really upset right now”);
- Interrupting the argument (e.g. “could we take five minutes and come back to this?”),
- Apologising (e.g. “I’m sorry, I put that really badly”);
- Finding common ground (e.g. “I agree with you that this is important”),
- Showing appreciation (e.g. “I know you’re only raising this because you care about us”) and
- Expressing hope about, and commitment to, the relationship (e.g. “it’s really important to me that we find a way to work out what to do about this”).
Dan Wile talks about how important it is when we communicate to be able to confide what we really feel to each other, to admit to our part in difficulties, and to comfort each other. Those strategies are all important ways to stay connected when we’re in conflict and to promote repair. If we can confide in our feelings of vulnerability or insecurity and admit to personal failings and inadequacies, then we might soften our partner’s feelings, making them more receptive to our point of view and more responsive to our suggestions of compromise. If the problems don’t lend themselves to any obvious solution that is acceptable to both people, then finding consolation and comfort from the relationship can make difficult situations more bearable.
A little earlier I discussed the idea of failed attempts to change one’s partner. I should emphasise that trying to change one’s partner is a very different idea to trying to have influence on each other. It could be argued that couples only try to change each other when their attempts to influence each other have failed. John Gottman has claimed that women’s ability to moderate the ways in which they raise concerns and men’s ability to respond positively and openly to their partner raising issues determine the long-term success or failure of the relationship (in heterosexual relationships at least). Although there is much less research on same-sex couples, the publication of recent research by Gottman and Levenson of a 12-year study seems to show that, whilst the problems of couples in same-sex relationships are broadly similar to those of straight couples, gay and lesbian couples often use more affection and humour in raising issues of concern, partners are more positive in how they receive attempts to raise issues (taking it less personally), and couples are more likely to remain positive after a disagreement. However the authors suggest that gay men should be careful that person who initiates a discussion on a difficult issue doesn’t become too negative as it makes repair attempts less effective.
We can also learn about what makes for effective repair from the literature about couples that survive infidelity. In order to discuss the possibility of reconciliation after a betrayal, we need a process of apology and forgiveness to take place. A full and sincere apology means showing that you genuinely understand the hurt you have caused and take full responsibility for it, with committed action to make reparation or ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Forgiveness means letting go of the right to punish another person for the wrong they have done you, for their sake, for your sake and for the sake of the relationship. If every argument is a slight wound on the body of the relationship then taking care of each others emotional wounds with love, care and commitment to do better in future is probably the best remedy for lasting happiness.
In summary, it seems that our relationships benefit from:
- Putting in the effort to stay emotionally and physically connected to our partner and building a relationship culture of friendship and appreciation,
- Identifying our personal and couple minefields (or areas of sensitivity e.g. money, in-laws, parenting, sex, housework) and taking responsibility to maintain a dialogue about them so that they don’t get gridlocked,
- Admitting we’re having a fight when one starts (not maintaining a face-saving, self-serving rationalisation that it is our partner who is the problem),
- Employing repair strategies often and with sincerity to communicate that the relationship is more important than this specific argument,
- Using conflict to learn more about oneself and one’s partner to enhance closeness and intimacy.
Andrew Grimmer, 2019