An unintentional consequence of writing about my relationship on the Internet (for eight years and counting) is that people can get an idealized, rosy view of how we live our lives. I try to write about the bad stuff as well as the good stuff. But the Internet is not my journal, and it never did anyone any good to overshare from the depths of a bad place (and we all have bad places).
Which leads to occasional comments like, “It’s just so amazing how you and David never Fight.” And then I have to try not to snarf water all over my keyboard, and while David is probably finding himself violently rolling his eyes in the middle of a meeting, not knowing why.
Because here is the thing. We fight. Regularly. And we don’t do it in some idyllically calm manner. Some couples do (in Stephanie’s family, they meditate, which I can’t even comprehend). But us? We yell, I cry (plenty), we get it out, and then we move on and it’s fine.
What’s interesting to me about Marriage and fighting (which came up as I was working on this piece in a thread on APW) is that there is actually a sizable amount of scientific research on the subject. (Not that “7 Rules of Christian Couples” junk, but real research.) The Gottman Institute has done forty years of clinical psychology research on how real couples fight, and tried to figure out what kind of fighting leads to divorce. And while the predictive magic of Gottman’s work has been questioned by some researchers, the breadth of information about patterns of marital fighting are fascinating… and interestingly, diverge pretty radically from the folk wisdom surrounding marriage.
TL;DR: The research shows that it doesn’t matter how much you fight—that varies greatly by couple, but is generally stable within the couple. However, it does matter how you fight. The Gottman Institute points to what they call the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (aka what you want to avoid). They are: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. TL;DR: You want to be respectful even when livid (“It makes me so f*cking angry when you do that”) not scornful (“Every time you talk about money, you sound just like your horrible mother”).
But more than that, research shows that another sign of doom is simply being totally emotionally closed off.
When 14-year longitudinal data became available Levenson & Gottman discovered a second dysfunctional pattern, emotional disengagement. It was marked by the absence of positive affect during conflict (no interest, affection, humor, or empathy).
And while that means different things to different people, for us, being emotionally open means—you guessed it—some fighting.
Beyond that, different couples are just… different, and they need different ground rules. We never take off our wedding rings, but sometimes one of us leaves the house to walk it off. We’ve agreed to go to couples therapy whenever the other person asks for it (and yup, we’ve done it). And we realize that some things just can’t be dealt with on a particular day, or even in a particular year. That not all fights will be resolved quickly. That bad spells (and bad years) happen, but so do magical ones.
Since marriage is a long haul, we have lots of time to figure out how to fight better. Sometimes we’ll fight less, sometimes we’ll fight more, and that’s okay. The important thing is to make our respect for each other clear, our lines of communication open, and our faith that we’ll figure things out… eventually… strong.
Also, we acknowledge that, just like everyone else, we’re stumbling through marriage, trying to do our best.
But fighting? Even yelling? Totally okay.
In fact, research shows that 69 percent of relationship problems are perpetual, based on personality conflicts. In other words, you’ll probably be having that same fight forever. And you’ll probably fight with roughly the same frequency throughout your marriage. But as long as you’re being respectful and emotionally open with each other? It’s probably just fine.
How about you? How often do you and your partner fight? How do you fight? Do your fights feel generally healthy, or out of control? If you don’t fight much, does your lack of fighting feel healthy or unhealthy? What works for you as a couple and what doesn’t?
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