So: things have been tough on the home front. Arguing, nagging. Avoiding the problem to keep the peace. One doesn’t listen. The other doesn’t understand. Sound familiar? If that’s your life, read on: recent research shows us new ways to get your relationship back on track.
John and Julie Gottman are a couple of PhDs who created a “Love Lab” — an apartment laboratory equipped with computers, video cameras, physiological sensors, and other equipment — to study interactions between couples over time. It’s a little bit like the TV show “Big Brother,” only with more sensors.
The good news: over a three-year period featuring thousands of conflicts, the subjects of the Love Lab almost ALWAYS tried to repair the problem. In other words, even in conflicted relationships, good intentions remained. The bad news, as you might have guessed, is that some folks succeeded with repairs, while others escalated into “negative behaviors” — yelling, fighting, withholding, etc. Also, probably not a surprise to you: couples that exited the conflicts and patched things up had better and longer lasting relationships than couples that didn’t. The bottom line: if you can minimize the “negative outcomes,” you’ll be well on your way.
The Gottmans analyzed the conflicts to learn how couples moved from attack-defend to collaboration-trust. One strategy employed by many of the subjects was avoidance. Unfortunately, avoiding the difficult topics and conflicts that are a natural part of any relationship let them fester, making them harder to treat as time moved on. Better than avoidance, researchers identified a two-part approach to taking on differences: when approaching a difficult topic, begin the conversation gently, and take responsibility for at least part of the problem.
The “How To”
When we’re not getting along, we usually feel like we’re doing more than our fair share of giving. It’s tough to start a conversation admitting that we might be partly wrong. But this is what we have to do: the research has shown that we’ll only be able to get to our relationship happy place if we work from a position of mutual interest rather than self-interest. It seems counterintuitive: giving without getting seems like lousy negotiating. But do you really want to spend your time keeping and arguing about the “score”? Wouldn’t you rather put your energy into creating love, caring, and trust?
Of course you would. But if you are in a relationship where trust is difficult, it may help for you to understand the emotions driving your partner’s trust-busting behaviors. In practical terms, this means understanding that behind everything that you are being asked to give (the negative), there is a longing, and behind that longing, a positive need. You might be seeing anger, but what is driving the anger is usually an unmet need, such as a need for loving attention. If you’re seeing fear, you may be seeing an unmet need to feel safe. If you’re seeing sadness, there may be unexpressed loss. Instead of confronting the emotion, identify the unmet need and turn towards it.
Again, this may seem counter-intuitive: you are trying to be listened to and understood, yet the research calls for you to listen and understand. Here’s why: if the person you’re with is angry, or scared, or sad, are they truly able to meet your needs? If you can accept their feelings and turn your attention to meeting the positive needs behind them, doesn’t it make sense that they’ll be more empowered to turn towards your needs the next time?
You may find it easier said than done. If that’s the case, consider seeking professional support.