Secrets of Fighting Smart in Your Marriage_
I was about to enter a restaurant one evening when a man stalked out the door, his face set in a stony expression. Close on his heels a woman came running. Pummeling him with her fists, she yelled, "Come back here and be nice to me!"
That poignant, impossibly contradictory plea symbolizes the plight of many unhappy couples: raging against his "indifference," she seeks to engage his attention while he withdraws from her "unreasonable demands."
In most marriages there are two emotional realities: his and hers. The roots of these emotional differences, while partly biological, can also be traced to the very different lessons boys and girls are taught about handling emotions.
As psychologists Leslie Brody and Judith Hall point out, girls learn to read emotional signals and to communicate their feelings. Boys, meanwhile, become adept at minimizing certain emotions-those having to do with vulnerability, guilt, fear and hurt.
When girls get together, says Deborah Tannen in her book You Just Don't Understand, they tend to play in pairs or small groups and emphasize relationships. Boys play in larger groups, and in their games they negotiate status. If a boy who has been hurt during a game becomes upset, he is expected to get out of the way and stop crying so the game can go on. Among girls, however, the game stops while everyone gathers around to help the one who is crying. According to Tannen, whereas boys take pride in their independence, girls see themselves as part of a web of connectedness and feel threatened by a rupture in their relationships. All of this means that, in general, women enter marriage prepared for the role of emotional manager, while men arrive with much less appreciation of the importance of this task to the relationship.
Understanding the emotional gender gap is critical in learning how to handle disagreements. Issues such as how often a couple has sex, how to discipline the children or how much debt a couple feels comfortable with are not what make or break a marriage. Rather it is how a couple discusses such sore points. "Did you pick up the dry cleaning?" asks a husband. "What am I, your maid?" the wife responds. "Hardly," he retorts. "If you were, at least you'd know how to clean."
This is a typical exchange by a hostile couple, according to John Gottman, a University of Washington, psychologist. In his laboratory Gottman has tracked the ups and downs of more than 2000 couples since 1972, analyzing the emotional glue that binds two people together and the corrosive feelings - or fault lines-that can tear them apart. In one study Gottman was able to predict with 94-percent accuracy which couples would divorce within three years.
While couples talk in Gottman's lab, sensors record the slightest physiological flux, and videos of their faces reveal the most fleeting nuances of feeling. After the session, each partner separately watches the films, narrating what his or her thoughts were during the exchange. What results is an emotional X ray of the marriage.
An early signal that a marriage is in danger, Gottman finds, is harsh criticism. Take the response of one woman to her husband when he apologized to her and their daughter for coming home ten minutes late for a family outing. The wife lashed out with sarcasm: "That's okay-it gave us a chance to discuss your amazing ability to screw up every single plan we make. You're so self-centered!"
In a healthy marriage, husband and wife feel free to voice their complaints, but they do this in a particular way. They report specifically what action is upsetting them and how it makes them feel: "When you forgot to pick up my clothes at the cleaner's, it made me feel you don't care about me." They are assertive but not belligerent.
The approach of the woman who angrily called her husband self-centered is completely different. Instead of criticizing his behavior, she launches a global attack on him. This leaves him feeling ashamed, disliked, inadequate-and defensive. Such corrosive conversation takes its toll. If a husband expresses contempt regularly, Gottman found, his wife will be more prone to a range of health problems. And when a wife's face shows disgust four or more times within a 15-minute conversation, it is a sign that the couple is likely to separate.
Contempt, disgust and personal attack can trigger what Gottman calls "flooding."- Flooded husbands or wives are so overwhelmed by their partner's negativity and their own reaction to it that they are swamped by dreadful, out-of-control feelings.
They can no longer hear without distortion or respond with clear-headedness; they find it hard to organize their thinking, so they fall back on primitive reactions-shouting and screaming.
Fighting can be damaging, but fleeing can be more pernicious, particularly when the "flight" is a retreat into stony silence.
Stonewalling is the ultimate defense. The stonewaller just goes blank, withdrawing from the conversation. In 85 percent of all marriages studied by Gottman, it was the husband who stonewalled in response to a critical wife. Habitual stonewalling is devastating to a relationship because it cuts off all possibility of working out disagreements.
Gottman and his colleagues have found that more men than women react to a spouse's criticism with flooding. Once flooded, husbands secrete more adrenalin into their bloodstream than women do, and the effects lake longer to dissipate.
One reason men are so likely to stonewall, Gottman proposes, is to protect themselves from flooding. His research showed that once husbands began stonewalling, their heart rates dropped by about ten beats per minute, bringing a sense of relief. At the same time, however, their wives' heart rates shot up to levels signaling high distress.
This emotional tango, with each sex seeking comfort in opposing gambits, leads to different attitudes toward confrontations: men want to avoid them as fervently as their wives feel compelled to seek them.
What can couples do, then, to protect the love and affection they feel for each other? Marital researchers offer specific advice for men and for women, and some general rules for both.
For men: don't sidestep conflict. Realize that when your wife brings up some grievance, she may be doing it as an act of love, trying to keep the relationship on course. Understand that anger is not synonymous with personal attack. The strength of your wife's emotions often simply indicates the intensity of her feelings about the matter - not necessarily dissatisfaction with you.
Be on guard against short circuiting the discussion by offering a solution too early on. It's typically more important for a wife to know that her husband understands her feelings than to know he agrees with her. More often than not, once she feels her view has been heard, she calms down.
For women: attack the right thing. Wives are often too intense in voicing complaints. Instead of delivering angry personal critiques, they should make clear statements that a particular behavior is distressing. It helps, too, if complaints are expressed in the larger context of reassuring your spouse of your love.
To stay on track during disagreements, both partners should employ the following techniques: Stick to one topic. Don't drag ancient history or other grievances into disagreements. Keep to the original issue and give each partner a chance to state his or her point of view at the outset.
Stay calm. Agree in advance to call timeout at the first sign of flooding. During that timeout period, cool down by practicing a relaxation techniques doing some aerobic exercise.
Focus on content. Try editing what you hear, ignoring the hostility - the nasty tone, the insult-to concentrate on the main message. Often the emotional intensity is not meant to be personal but instead is a signal of the issue's importance. It may mean, too, that the discussion should he delayed until later.
Mirror the message. The most powerful form of non defensive listening is called mirroring. When one partner makes a complaint, the other repeats it in his or her own words, trying to capture not just the thought but also the feelings that go with it. The effect of being mirrored accurately is feeling emotionally attuned and validated.
Empathize. One powerful way to de-escalate a fight is to let your partner know that you can see things from his or her perspective. Another is to take responsibility or even apologize if you see that you are wrong. At a minimum, convey that you are listening and acknowledge the emotions that are being expressed, even if you can't go along with the argument.
During peaceful times, finding something in your partner that you genuinely appreciate not only soothes your spouse but also builds up emotional capital you can draw on when disagreements do arise. Because all these techniques are to be called upon during the heat of confrontation, it helps to practice them in non stressful moments. Then you'll have them ready when you need them, to keep your fights fair and your marriage strong.
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