It’s Not IF You Fight But HOW You Fight That’s Important

It is a brilliant Sunday in Seattle. And while most of the city is outside savoring the sunshine, my husband, David, and I are inside arguing. We’re having a fight —on purpose.

So are 127 other couples gathered in a cavernous conference room during a marathon two-day workshop called the Marriage Survival Kit.

We are a mixed bunch: some newlyweds; others are long-marrieds. While some of us are smiling and holding hands —and others seem distant or uncomfortable —we are all sitting, facing our mates in folding chairs. We are practicing gentler ways of dealing with conflicts in hopes of strengthening our marriages.

“You’re kidding,” David had responded when I told him I wanted us to fly 2000 miles from our Cleveland home to Seattle so we could fight in order to get closer.

Finally Agreed

After a little coaxing he agreed to go. He was impressed that the leader of the workshop, John M. Gottman, Ph.D., was an MIT-trained mathematician and psychologist. He had published groundbreaking studies showing measurable differences between couples whose marriages were happy and those headed for misery and/or divorce court.

Based on two decades of research on couples whose marriages flourished over the years as well as those whose marriages floundered, Gottman, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle and co-founder of the Gottman Institute, had discovered behavior “predictors” of divorce. (He claimed 91 percent accuracy.) He also developed a system of behavioral changes that could improve good marriages and save troubled ones.

That’s what his best-selling book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work and now these workshops, were all about. They were to teach couples how to make changes to improve their relationship. But the idea of spending two days intentionally “at each other’s throats,” as David put it, filled him with dread.

Spiraling Disagreements

We loved each other deeply, but we did not fight well. Increasingly, disagreements seemed to spiral quickly out of control. Before we knew it, one of us was yelling or stalking out of the room. And both of us were hurt and frustrated. We always made up, eventually. But the toll was high. Each new fight seemed to escalate faster than the last one. They left us drained of energy and affection. After nearly seven years of marriage, we were worried about all this negativity that had somehow crept into our life together.

“All couples, happy and not, fight —and sometimes furiously” Gottman assures all of us. We sit nervously listening for indications of whether we are among what he calls the “masters” or “disasters” of marriage.

David squeezes my hand to show he is with me in this adventure. Plus, he was fascinated by the way Gottman had come up with his “anatomy” of happy marriages. In a specially equipped University of Washington research room (known as the Love Lab) he had hooked up couples to sensors that measured their heart rate. They also measured blood flow, sweat output and blood pressure as they talked about issues of conflict.

Recorded Interactions of the Fight

The room also was equipped with video cameras that captured the couples’ body language as well as verbal interactions. Gottman’s team had followed 700 couples for as long as 14 years under a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to come up with the insights that had brought us to Seattle.

I gave David —and all the other men in the room —huge credit for showing up. Most of the women did not need Gottman or clinical psychologist Julie Gottman, Ph.D., his workshop co-leader and wife, to tell us that when it comes to confronting sticky marital issues, it’s usually the wife (80 percent of the time, says Gottman) who jumps in headfirst. The husband, on the other hand, avoids discussing problems. They keep hoping they will go away before things get messy.

An Important Finding

“The issue isn’t whether you fight, it’s how you fight and how rich your stockpile of good feelings is about each other to weather difficulties and keep your basic attitude toward your partner positive,” Gottman tells us.

“At the heart of my research is the simple truth that happy marriages are based on a deep friendship. This includes a mutual respect and enjoyment of each other’s company. A couple that keeps their friendship strong despite the inevitable disagreements of married life, experiences what I call ‘positive sentiment over-ride.’ Their positive thoughts about each other and their marriage are so pervasive that they tend to supersede their negative feelings,” He tells us. “It takes a much more significant conflict for them to lose their equilibrium as a couple.”

Meanwhile, troubled marriages, through years of building up unresolved resentments and disappointments, are seething with ‘negative sentiment override.’ These folks, he says, have stopped trusting that the other has their best interests at heart.

And when contempt creeps into the marriage, “Be careful,” warns Gottman. It can act “like sulfuric acid on love. The antidote to contempt is to create a marriage environment of appreciation, fondness, admiration, understanding and pride. Whenever contempt starts rearing its head, force yourself to scan for positive feelings about your partner. This is your friend, the love of your life you’re arguing with. It’s not some mortal enemy.” Still, Gottman is optimistic about the state of these marriages. “If there’s even a small ember of love left, there’s plenty of hope,” Gottman says.

A Positive Marriage Environment

Building a positive marriage environment is our task today. (On day two, armed with these good feelings, we’ll tackle our conflicts.) “Your goal isn’t to fix anything in two days,” he cautions. “What we’re aiming to do is simply make small changes. You can use them when you go back home to make big changes.”

Over the course of the next several hours, the Gottmans (and a team of therapists) guide us. They do this through exercises aimed at enhancing our fondness for each other, our humor and our understanding of each other’s hopes and dreams.

For our first exercise we retreat to a corner of the conference room. We have two stacks of cards and prepare to play a get-to-know-you-better game. We each take turns choosing from the first pile of cards. They test our knowledge of each other’s likes and dislikes. I ace the question, “What is your partner’s favorite meal?” (It is lamb chops, garlic mashed potatoes, asparagus and pineapple upside-down cake.) But I draw a blank with “what was your partner’s most embarrassing moment?” David tells me. I next fill him in on one of my worst childhood experiences. It was when I had my Girl Scout cookie money stolen by a second-grade classmate.

We laugh or console each other over these shared thoughts, feeling the lovely warmth of our increased connectedness. And that, of course, is precisely the point of the exercise.


The second pile of cards gives us a chance to demonstrate our affection in a fun way. I draw a card that says, “Take a leisurely bath together.” We vow to do that when we get back to our hotel. David draws “Go out dancing” and we make a date to go country and western dancing when we get home. “This is what real romance is,” Gottman tells us after the 30-minute exercise.

“Many people think that the secret to reconnecting romantically with their partner is a candlelit dinner or a by-the-sea vacation. But the real secret to increasing the strength and passion of a marriage is to turn toward each other in little ways every day. A romantic night out really turns up the heat only when a couple keeps the pilot light burning by staying in touch in little ways.”

Gottman then sends us off with a list of 75 positive adjectives. We are to pick five that best describe our partner. We are then to write down an example that illustrates each adjective. “Many times when couples are going through a rough time with one another, they lost sight of all the positive aspects of the partner and relationship,” Gottman says.

I tell David I think he’s intelligent, committed, dependable, witty and tender. He says he has circled 15 things but has whittled his list down to living, creative, resourceful, insightful and caring.

Painful Reality

I’m a little hurt he hasn’t circled sexy. He’s disappointed I bypassed virile. These are both attributes we lauded in each other when we married. We admit that passion is one thing we have let slip of late as we coped with work stresses and our incessant bickering. Until we did the adjective list, we had not realized how far we had come from our early, romantic days. While this part was supposed to be fun, it has brought up this painful reality.

We hold up the bright red card we have been given to summon help from one of the roving therapists. “It’s not unusual for couples to encounter negative things in the process of pursuing positive ones,” says the young psychologist. “Since the passionate side of your life together is so important why don’t you share with each other some sexy occasions you remember? That can be a nice way of acknowledging how much you liked that part of your life. It will jump-start your journey to rediscovering it.”

She’s right and shortly we are smiling about our favorite romantic movements. Without realizing it, we have moved ahead to one of Gottman’s strongest indicators of a successful marriage: making and accepting bids.

Bids, he explains, are the myriad ways couples approach each other in an attempt to share a thought or experience. This could be as subtle as mentioning something of interest you read in the newspaper or as overt as saying you would like to make love tonight. Gottman says that in strong marriages, partners might enthusiastically acknowledge each other in this way dozens of times a day.

Lost Contact

But in troubled marriages, one or both partners may turn away (I’m busy”). They may even turn against (“That’s a dumb idea”). Or they may even be unaware that a connection was being offered because they have lost contact with the core connection to their mate. This is essential for building up a rich emotional bank account in a marriage. “To enrich that bank account, partners need to become better observers of each other’s reaching out,” he says.

As we go back to our seats, Gottman prepares us for the next day’s session. “You’ll work on one perpetual problem on which you are gridlocked. Also work on one ongoing area of disagreement that is solvable,” Gottman says. “But tonight just revel in the positive thoughts you’ve shared today.”

Outside in the early evening air, we manage to revel as instructed. We have, after all, said a lot of wonderful things to each other today. As I take a nap before dinner, David goes out for a walk. He returns with a bouquet of brilliant wildflowers.

All this stands us in good stead for Day Two, when we tackle conflicts. Gottman tells us that his research has identified five specific steps that couples in happy, stable marriages use for resolving disputes.

These Steps are:

1. They begin a discussion with what he calls a softened start-up. They state a complaint about a specific action, not condemnation of the other person. This means complain, but don’t blame. Describe what is happening, don’t evaluate and judge. Talk calmly about what you need without dredging up past resentments and failures.

2. When emotions get out of hand and hurts occur, they find ways to repair the damage. The goal is to de-escalate the emotionalism and get the conversation back on a constructive track.

3. They accept influence from the other person. They make a true effort to understand their individual roles in the mess and try to see their partner’s way of thinking.

4. They compromise, acknowledging their individual roles in the mess, trying to find a mutual solution.

5. On issues they can’t resolve, they accept what they can’t change. They make an effort to be more tolerant of their partner’s personality —and imperfections.

It’s time, our leader says, to tackle a solvable problem.

On Our Own

We go off to a corner, armed with a list of statements. We are to use them whenever the argument turns negative to tell our mate that the conversation needs to take another track. Among the statements are: “I’m getting scared.” “Just listen to me right now and try to understand.” “Let me start again in a softer way” and “Let’s take a break.”

Says Gottman, “These scripted phrases may sound stilted, but they can be of great help with damage control.” Because these statements “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.”

Before Gottman sends us off to tackle one of our gridlock issues, he warns the men to be on the alert for a common male problem. It’s “the refusal or inability to accept influence” from their wives. “Our studies show that most women are comfortable listening to their mate’s point of view and allowing it to influence them. But only 35 percent of men really listen and take into account their wife’s view,” he says. “When a man is not willing to share power with his partner, there is an eighty-one percent chance that his marriage will self-destruct.”

Warns Gottman, “For your marriage to thrive, you need to find ways to live with and manage issues that can’t be resolved. This applies much as you would a chronic physical problem, such as a bad back or recurring allergies.”

Following Advice at Home

Back home, months after the couples workshop, we have followed Gottman’s advice. We have instituted what he calls “daily rituals of connection” to enhance our relationship. We spend a few minutes before parting each morning to learn what interesting or challenging thing the other is facing that day. And we each take some time to talk about how our day went when we get home.

We also write down one thing each day that we appreciate and value in the other. Then, we share that with each other at night over dinner. We make a date once a week to do something enjoyable and stress free. Slowly we’re bringing back the humor and playfulness we valued so much when we were newly coupled.

We still have conflicts, but fewer of them spiral out of control. We make liberal use of two lists—qualities we like in each other, and tips for handling disputes —which we keep on the refrigerator door. A new level of trust seems to have entered our life. We may not be masters of marriage yet, but we’re working on it —lovingly.

This article, concerning how we fight, was originally titled, Lessons from “The Love Lab… Learning to Get Even Closer.” It was written by Judi Dash and published 04/02/02 in the Family Circle Magazine,