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The Myth about Marital Conflict

As a couples therapist, one of the things I hear couples say the most is that their goal is to never argue. It is so often that our idea of a happy, healthy couple is one that never fights or disagrees-this could not be farther from the truth! In fact, if someone tells you they never argue with their spouse or partner, they are probably not telling the whole truth. Many relationship experts, including Dr. John Gottman, would argue that conflict in a marriage or long-term relationship is actually completely normal and healthy (Gottman, 1999). It is how you handle these disagreements that is the key to having a happy, healthy relationship.

According to Gottman, one of the main things that keeps couples from arguing in a healthy way is the language that is used during a disagreement. So often, partners will become overwhelmed with emotion during an argument and begin saying things they later regret. Criticism, verbal attacks, and put-downs only escalate the argument, keeping partners from being able to solve the issue at hand. In addition, couples often get so wrapped up in arguing over problems that can never really be solved (such as differences in personalities or core beliefs). It is amazing how much time is freed up when couples choose to agree to disagree on these types of issues, and focus on the issues in their relationship that they can actually solve (such as the division of housework).

So how do you change these behaviors and learn to argue in a way that actually strengthens your relationship instead of chips away at it? According to Gottman, one of the keys is to be able to calm yourself when you are feeling overwhelmed with emotions during an argument, as well as know when to call a time-out from the argument (time-outs aren’t just for kids!). Another key is to be able to come back to each other following a disagreement and work to make repairs, such as by expressing appreciation to your partner or apologizing for anything that may have been said strictly out of anger during the disagreement.

As a couples therapist, I coach couples in how to disagree in a healthy way. Believe it or not, when you learn how to do this, your relationship will strengthen as well. Some skills you can learn in couples therapy are how to be mindful of the body language you use during disagreements, how to soothe yourself during arguments, and how to express appreciation for your partner, rather than fixating on the things that you cannot change about them. Through practice, these skills can become second-nature, and can have enormous effects on many areas of your marriage or relationship.

Reference: Gottman, J. M. (1999). The marriage clinic: A scientifically based marital therapy. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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