Does it seem that you and your partner argue a lot? Or, are you aware of hidden resentments and unexpressed feelings that are mostly buried or swept under the rug? One common misconception in relationships is that conflict is both damaging to the relationship and mostly unplanned. However, that is not completely true. Destructive and unhealthy conflict of course can negatively impact a relationship. But, “healthy conflict” and productive communication is, in fact, essential for creating and maintaining a healthy relationship.
The Honeymoon Phase
Can a relationship be healthy if a couple never has a disagreement? Probably not, since 99.9% of couples have differences that need to be resolved. Perhaps the only exception to this is when couples are in the Honeymoon Phase, or in the beginning period, of a relationship. This occurs when two people are glowingly in love where a couple can typically have little or no conflict whatsoever and still have a healthy relationship. Unfortunately, this phase does not last.
After the Honeymoon Phase
After the honeymoon phase, it is highly likely that couples will have some types of disagreements in their interactions with one another. Two things to keep in mind:
1. There may be that 1 in a million couple that is so compatible that there is no difference of opinion. (It’s fairly safe to assume that’s not you or you wouldn’t have read even this much of the article!)
2. The majority of relationship problems and conflicts that do arise are usually manageable problems. However, the couple that never seems to have an argument might simply be sweeping their relationship problems under the rug in order to avoid conflict.
Why Do Couples Ignore Conflict?
There are several reasons why couples choose not to engage in discussions that could cause a conflict. These include:
- Fear of the discussion turning into an argument and escalating out of control.
- Lack of confidence to be able to handle the discussion effectively.
- Past experiences that have shown these kinds of discussions don’t go well.
- An unspoken agreement to avoid the conflict.
Ignoring the conflict is simply a strategy that doesn’t work. It only serves to “kick that can down the road.” Eventually the issues that are kept under the surface will re-emerge, shattering the temporary strained silence. It will also be uglier and more intense than if originally addressed in a timely way. Even if the silence does last, the relationship will inevitably become more distant, with each partner living parallel, but separate lives. This avoidance can and does ultimately doom many relationships.
Learning to Resolve Conflict
Thankfully, there are steps that couples can take to resolve their disagreements. The couples that intuitively know they don’t have the skills to resolve conflict on their own, can attend couples counseling or attend classes to learn how to more skillfully communicate with one another. Those who feel they do have the skills, but are still avoiding the issues can “schedule” a time to “argue.” What this really means is to set a (preferably regular) time in which to respectfully communicate with each other.
Things to Do When Scheduling an Argument
When scheduling this time, consider the following factors:
- Begin by meeting once a week for 10 minutes. Make sure that both of you are free from distractions, such as cell phones, TV, computers, or other pressing needs.
- Gradually increase your meeting times to 2-3 times a week, aiming for a minimum of 15-20 minutes at a time.
- Both partners need to make an effort to really attend to each other’s concerns. Each is respectful, focusing on the other partner with the mindset of creating understanding.
- If you get stuck and things escalate, temporarily end the discussion and reschedule at a time when both partners are likely to be calm.
- If, after repeated attempts, you are both still stuck on an issue, consider seeking professional couples counseling.
The bottom line is that healthiest couples find a way to avoid a heated conflict, but are skilled in engaging in respectful discussions that include differences of opinion.
Couples who schedule “conflict” are being proactive by establishing a framework to have difficult discussions with the purpose of understanding one another and respectfully finding a satisfactory resolution, instead of simply ignoring the problem.
Eventually, you and your partner can become skilled at resolving differences in a way that ultimately strengthens your relationship, instead of weighing it down.
“Not this fight, here we go again,” she mumbled to herself as she realized she was about to have the same argument with her husband. It seemed that whatever they were arguing about never got resolved, and it only became a broken record, repeating itself again and again in a vicious cycle. Michael Fulwiler, of The Gottman Institute, notes that this is a frequent experience for many couples. It is what he calls a perpetual problem.
A Perpetual Problem
Why are perpetual problems worth knowing about? Well, The Gottman Institute’s research has found that as much as 69% of conflict between couples stems from perpetual problems! He notes that there is a difference between perpetual and solvable problems in that:
1. A perpetual problem is one that often reveals fundamental differences in a couple’s lifestyle and personality which makes it very difficult to resolve.
2. A solvable problem is one that is situational, and can be more easily resolved.
Washing the Dishes
Let’s use an example to highlight the differences between the two types of problems couples face. Say that a couple is arguing over who is going to do the dishes after dinner:
- If both partners believe they should contribute to completing this chore at least some of the time, then this is likely to be a solvable problem where they should be able to find a compromise and resolve the dispute.
- On the other hand, if the husband feels that he shouldn’t ever have to do the dishes and the wife believes they should share the chores, then a fundamental difference between the couple exists. In all likelihood, this will then become a perpetual problem that persists after the initial argument is over. It will likely be much harder to find a compromise or agreed upon solution.
The important question, of course, is how should couples handle perpetual problems? Every couple has them, but perpetual problems don’t have to ruin a relationship. Relationship health does, however, depend on how well couples manage the conflict. If they can’t do so effectively, they can experience gridlock.
What is Gridlock?
Gridlock occurs when the perpetual problem between you and your partner has been “mishandled” and cannot be resolved. As Fulwiler states, couples who are gridlocked can seem like they are “spinning their wheels” when they get into these kinds of arguments. This occurs because, underneath the surface, are hurt feelings, unresolved conflict, and “hidden agendas” that ultimately prevent anything from being resolved. As a result, these gridlocked problems often doom a relationship.
Tips for Resolving Perpetual Problems
Here are some steps that can help couples more effectively navigate their perpetual problems:
1. Check your pulse rate – Seriously! Research from The Gottman Institute indicates that when our heart rates rise above 100 beats per minute, it becomes almost impossible for us to process information effectively. This means we are no longer capable of being a good listener or able to truly understand our partner’s perspective. If you’re too worked up, schedule a time in the near future to resume the discussion and then take a break until you’ve had time to cool off.
2. Begin conversations with a “Soft-Start-Up”: A “hard start-up” is when you begin by blaming or attacking your partner. A “soft start-up” includes using an “I statement” and a respectful tone when you begin a discussion. For more information on soft start-ups, go here.
3. Are you focused on being “Right”? If the discussion starts to escalate in an unproductive direction, try to de-escalate by asking yourself whether you really understand your partner’s point of view. Or, are you just trying to prove you are right (and your partner is wrong)?
4. Shift your focus to your partner’s feelings over your own. This can really make a huge difference by allowing your partner to truly feel heard.
5. Be ready to compromise and to find a middle ground that can satisfy both parties.
6. Utilize humor, when possible, to help with difficult communications.
In general, research shows that couples who learn how to manage or “massage” their perpetual problems are much less likely to experience gridlock. On the other hand, couples who poorly manage their perpetual problems are, unfortunately, risking the long-term survival of their relationship.
If, after following the above tips, you and your partner are still struggling to navigate your perpetual problems successfully, don’t hesitate to seek professional support from a local, skilled couples counselor.
Growing up, you probably frequently heard your mother urge you to be polite and always say “thank you” whenever appropriate. It turns out that saying “thank you” can have many more benefits than simply adhering to good manners. Recent research on the effects of gratitude continues to show benefits to those who adopt a gratitude practice in their daily lives. Expressing gratitude can lead to greater physical and emotional well-being, as well as feeling happier and more optimistic. Specifically, research has shown that those who practice gratitude not only have less depression and anxiety, but also have lower blood pressure and even a stronger immune system!
Dr. Allen Barton and Dr. Ted Futris, both of the University of Georgia, conducted a research study to explore the power that gratitude has in relationships. Their results showed that expressing gratitude, such as saying “thank you,” resulted in the following:
There was reduced “demand/withdraw communication” between partners. This occurs when one person begins to be critical (criticize, nag, be demanding) of their partner, who then withdraws from the conversation in order to prevent an argument or confrontation from occurring.
Increased financial well-being in the relationship.
Partners felt more appreciated and valued by one another.
Expressing gratitude consistently can help counteract the fallout for a couple in conflict.
Gratitude can help people heal from negative conflict and shield them from the results of poor communication.
Expressing gratitude helped lessen the negative impact on couples who were unskilled communicators.
This study also confirms previous research about how financial stress can have a negative impact on a relationship. Financial disagreement is one of the most common areas of conflict in a relationship. Examples of financial conflict can include:
When one accrues credit card debt without sharing with their partner
Not communicating the status of unpaid bills, such as utilities, rent, mortgage, or car payment.
When one partner has a loss of income, such as losing a job.
Hidden spending that you keep secret from your spouse (gambling, drug use, etc.).
Philosophical differences in spending versus saving for retirement.
Struggling to be able to pay for children’s college tuition.
Experiencing a major health crisis that creates expensive medical bills.
How does expressing gratitude help with issues such as financial distress?
Expressing gratitude helps create a “buffer” between you, your spouse (or partner), and the issue that you are in conflict about. For example, if a couple is in disagreement over hidden expenses, the couple will be able to approach the situation in a calmer, more constructive manner with one another if, at baseline, the couple has a sense that each values and appreciates the other. If there isn’t much gratitude expressed by either partner, they are much more likely to blame, criticize, or become angrier with one another.
Expressing gratitude does not actually prevent conflict from occurring, but it helps each person in a relationship to create an “emotional bank account” to draw upon when conflict does arise. Couples who do not have this emotional bank account or reservoir of gratitude (through positive emotional interactions), will be more likely to argue and be more emotionally reactive with one another.
Gratitude can also help a couple struggling in other areas of their relationship, such as having conflict regarding their sex life. In a similar way, having the reservoir of goodwill built up can help couples feel more connected, have more patience, and become more interested in understanding their partner’s experience. This maximizes the chance of resolving the conflict successfully and, at the very least, helps prevent the conflict from causing significant relationship damage.
In conclusion, expressing gratitude means more than just saying thank-you. Over time, the act of expressing gratitude can help build a reserve of positive emotions and feelings that couples can draw on when times get tough in order to cushion one another from the effects of negative interactions. In short, never underestimate the power of a “thank you” to help build a healthy relationship. To learn how to develop a gratitude practice (by starting a gratitude journal), go here.
You very likely have heard stories about someone in their forties or fifties buying a flashy new car or in some way attempting to recapture a part of their youth. It’s generally been referred to as the midlife crisis. For many decades it has been mostly understood that happiness declines from the 20s to middle age (40s-60s). The idea of a mid-life crisis has actually spurred a cultural phenomenon and has even been a central theme in many popular movies’ storylines. However, there is new research in the Journal of Developmental Psychology that says the notion of a mid-life crisis is actually a myth.
According to Nancy Galambos, Harvey Krahn, Matt Johnson, and their research team from the University of Alberta in Canada, our happiness actually rises from our teens and early twenties and continues well into adulthood.
The researchers conducted a longitudinal study where they followed the same people over an extended period of time. Previous research did not use this method. Instead, earlier studies had been conducted using cross-sectional data that assesses different people at the same time. These people may have differences in age, race, ethnicity, gender, etc. Galambos et. al state that because they track the same subjects in the longitudinal study over an extended period of time, it provides much more reliable data than simply comparing average happiness scores of different people at different ages. Harvey Krahn states: “I’m not trashing cross-sectional research, but if you want to see how people change as they get older, you have to measure the same individuals over time.”
The findings from their research show that:
People are happier in their early 40s than at age 18.
Happiness increases the most between ages 18-30.
Happiness is higher when people are married and in good health, versus being unemployed and in poor health.
This rise in happiness in general is consistent with the notion that a mid-life crisis is in fact a myth.
One important factor to note about this research study is that the individuals they followed over an extended period of time are from Canada. The question to determine is whether or not these results generalize and apply to Americans? While it’s likely that they do apply to Americans, future research with American subjects is needed in order to confirm this.
So, if we accept that the mid-life crisis is a myth, how do we then explain those stereotypical mid-life crisis behaviors? One possible understanding is that a “crisis” or any meaningful life transition can happen at many points in our lives, whether it is at age 18, 40, or 80. In addition, not everyone is prone to having a significant life crisis.
However, here are some typical life crisis situations that can occur throughout many stages (not only in mid-life) of our lifespan to consider:
Feeling anger or resentment at one’s spouse/partner.
Having a heighted sexual interest, either with one’s partner or someone else.
Having an affair.
A feeling that one’s life is going in the wrong direction.
A desire for a lifestyle change that has more adventure (think of the sports car or participating in thrill-seeking activities).
An interest in recapturing one’s youth and feeling young again.
Wanting to change one’s appearance to look younger.
Having a general sense of identity confusion.
It can feel overwhelming and discouraging to be experiencing a crisis in life, no matter at what age it happens. A life crisis can also take a toll on our relationships with others as well, including our partner. If you or your partner is experiencing some kind of life crisis, it is important to seek out professional help and meet with an experienced therapist. Together, you can investigate the source of the crisis, better understand it, and explore what steps to take to help recover from your situation. This is a much healthier step than impulsively buying that expensive shiny new sports car.
Many people are familiar with the statement, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” In fact, this has been confirmed by some well-known research conducted by Dr. Albert Mehrabian. His studies concluded that communication is 7% verbal and 93% non-verbal.
He then broke down the non-verbal components as follows: 55% is from facial expressions, gestures, and postures, while 38% is from tone of voice. Although his research has been criticized (in that it overstates how much of communication is really non-verbal), the point is, a large part of communication — and arguably the most important part — is actually non-verbal, which does include one’s tone of voice.
However, until recently, research hadn’t confirmed the significance of different voice tones and what impact they have on our relationships.
Over a two-year period, using a computer algorithm, researchers from the University of Southern California recorded hundreds of conversations in therapy sessions. They focused particularly on the pitch and intensity of voices, which indicated high emotion. Over 100 couples participated and the findings were reported in the journal, Proceedings of Interspeech.
Amazingly, results showed that tone of voice was a better predictor of marital success than the opinions of counseling professionals! This is even more significant when you consider that these counseling professionals had the distinct advantage of being able to analyze couples’ behavior, body language, and other communication factors.
A five-year follow-up with the study participants confirmed the algorithm findings were able to predict improvement or deterioration in relationships 74% of the time!
The takeaway from this research is that how you say something really, really matters — especially in the sphere of intimate relationships.
While an algorithm analysis won’t likely show up in your therapist’s office anytime soon, what the research revealed is quite important. The tone of voice we use can positively or negatively affect our interactions with others, particularly with those closest to us.
How you speak, and what you and your partner say to each other, greatly impacts your emotions and relationship quality. In support of this statement, another recent study found that couples who show appreciation for each other by saying “please” and “thank you” had the happiest marriages. Even small, infrequent signs of gratitude helped keep partners feeling connected, better prepared to survive rough times, and avoid divorce.
Think about it: A comment directed to you in a sarcastic or critical tone comes across as a negative blow, right? Yet hearing the same words, delivered in a kind and loving tone, has an entirely different and upbeat feel, doesn’t it? The big communication difference lies in the tone of voice we choose when we communicate with others.
If you recognize negative voice tone patterns in your relationships, see if the following exercise is helpful:
Focus on the tone of voice both you and your partner use when interacting. At the same time, pay attention to how particular voice tones affect your mood and emotions. Try studying your responses for a full week or simply start with one weekend.
Regularly observing the way you speak to others, as well as how the words are received, would be a great start or addition to a mindfulness practice. Equally important, observe how the varying tones of voice from others impact you.
Most of us don’t pay enough attention to how our tone of voice (as well as the words we use) affects our interactions with others. If your relationships are suffering due to poor communication and you could benefit from more guidance, do not hesitate to seek professional support from a local therapist.
While what you say, of course, matters, how you say it truly does make a big difference.