Last modified on Friday, 26 December 2008 15:37
Gottman reminds us, however, that even in satisfied couples, many problems are never actually "solved" throughout the duration of the marriage. Arguments often arise over the same issues throughout the course of a 40-year marriage. Spouses may never share the same interests, political perspectives, or social proclivities, and may repeatedly revisit differences over such issues as neatness and promptness. Nonetheless, the couple can learn how to "agree to disagree"--accept each other and certain differences, show respect, friendship, and love, and work around their problems without undue conflict, even if the issues in question never are finally resolved.
Another hallmark of satisfied couples is that they argue successfully and have ways of resolving differences. Gottman's research is especially relevant here since the general public often believes that happy couples simply don't argue. Not at all! In fact, being able to argue effectively--express differences in a way that doesn't sidetrack the discussion into old grudges and conflicts, or devolve into personal attacks--seems to be an essential skill of satisfied couples. Those lacking this skill fall prey to the accrual of unresolved issues and resentments, leading to patterns of defensiveness and contempt that undermine connection.
This research into the importance of knowing how to argue has generated treatment interventions that teach fair fighting and authentic repair--how to make up with each other. One means of making arguments fairer and less toxic to a relationship is the process of "softening," highlighted by couples therapy researcher Susan Johnson, psychology professor at Ottawa University. Teaching couples to achieve a moment by moment opening up and lowering of defenses in the face of conflict, which Johnson believes is critical for putting antagonistic relationships back on track, is a key component of her Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy.
Not ambushing the other person also makes fighting more productive. Gottman's couples therapy helps partners find alternatives to the overly rapid start-up of disagreements, in which one partner, more or less without preamble, blasts the other with his or her grievance, which generates emotional flooding and overwhelming states of arousal in the other.