Why Understanding Your Partner is Not Enough

Try to recall a fairly recent stressful situation or really difficult day.

Let’s say that you just got a speeding ticket last week. Then, while driving home after a not-so-great day at work, you get into a fender-bender. When you get home, you share all this news with your partner. Your partner nods his or her head, and maybe asks a couple of clarifying questions (such as “how fast were they going?”), but otherwise seems emotionally distant. If you’re not feeling that your partner’s response is particularly supportive, recent research shows us why.

Intellectual Understanding Yet Emotionally Distant

Published in Psychological Science, the essence of the research shows that simply understanding someone’s situation does not necessarily mean we are emotionally connected to the person or motivated to become actively supportive. Without this emotional connection and subsequent support, we, intentionally or not, send a message to our partner that we aren’t truly concerned about them or their situation. If it happens frequently enough, this perceived lack of caring can create tension and distance in a relationship.

What Leads to Supportive Behavior in Relationships?

Researchers, Winczewski and Bowen from the University of California-Santa Barbara, investigated whether understanding your partner alone is sufficient to lead to supportive behavior in relationships. They asked couples to name a previous issue in their relationship that had caused stress. The researchers videotaped the discussions between each partner and were able to measure the response of each person for levels of empathy.

The result was that when an individual had a high degree of concern for what was going on for their partner, they also had a high degree of “empathetic accuracy.” This means that a partner accurately determined that their partner was troubled. However, if that same person didn’t care about their partner’s problems, then accuracy was low.

The researchers asked whether empathic accuracy, which is understanding another person’s feelings and thoughts, could cause “responsive behavior” (taking action to support our partner) when paired with empathic caring.

In other words, the researchers wanted to know if understanding our partner’s thoughts and feelings (cognitive empathy) is enough to lead us to actively support them?  Or, does this responsive (supportive) behavior require us also to have compassionate motivation (empathic concern)? The researchers found that without this compassionate motivation, there is much less supportive behavior.

What Does This Mean For Couples?

Couples who wish to improve their relationship can pay attention to whether they are demonstrating empathetic concern for their partners. Just having intellectual understanding of your partner’s situation isn’t enough. Knowing that your partner understands how you feel about the speeding ticket and fender-bender can help you feel supported and comforted. Yet, an additional show of compassionate motivation makes you feel most supported.

On the other hand, if, over time, your partner continues to show a lack of caring regarding different issues, your partner will then get the message that you can’t trust him or her, or that he or she will be there for them emotionally. This, not surprisingly, can lead to the unraveling of a relationship.

Steps Couples Can Take

Here are some steps that couples can take to build their empathic accuracy (trust and mutual caring) in their relationships: Try having small conversations each day (choose a consistent time that works for your schedule).

1. Practice empathy-building skills. Make eye contact and reflect back your understanding of what your partner said or their main concern.

2. Participate in activities that require working together and problem-solving such as household chores, yard work, hiking, or planning a vacation.

3. When a struggle or conflict does come up, request what you need from your partner.

4. If you are still having problems after trying the above steps, consider seeing a couples counseling specialist. A skilled therapist can help advise you both on building your empathic accuracy.

What this study teaches us is that empathic accuracy is a skill that not everyone possesses, but it can be learned. The more opportunities that you and your partner have to communicate, the better each of you will be able to understand each other, relate where each is coming from, and o build mutual trust and caring in your relationship.

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Laugh Together, Grow Old Together?

While laughter has been generally known to be a very healthy outlet, the clear majority of the research has looked at individual outcomes. Very little research has looked at the role of laughter in a social or group setting, until now. Recently, researchers from the University of North Carolina have looked at laughter and how it can contribute to the health of romantic relationships. Their findings provide insight for couples that want to strengthen and even increase the longevity of their relationships.

Researching Laughter

Laura Kurtz, from UNC, led this study, published in Personal Relationships. It  included 77 heterosexual couples who had been in a relationship together for four years, on average. The research team recorded video discussions with each couple on how they first met. The researchers then coded the number of times a couple laughed together and measured how long they laughed. In addition, the couples filled out a questionnaire regarding the closeness and quality of their relationships.

Results of the Research

The results of the study found that couples who shared laughter had a higher level of satisfaction in their relationship. Thus, laughter can be one indicator (of many) of the health of a relationship. These results may sound intuitive, but Kurtz notes that there is very little academic research connecting laughter to relationships. As mentioned, since most prior research regarding laughter looked at individual outcomes, there’s a need to build the literature with research looking at the role and effects of laughter in relationships.

Laughter and Gender Patterns

Two gender patterns that emerged from the study showed that:

  1. Women laughed more than men.
  2. When men do laugh, the laughter is actually more contagious.  

It is possible that men laugh less because they are less emotionally expressive. Why is male laughter more contagious than female laughter?  It may be because male laughter occurs less often. So, when men do laugh, there may be a perception of “if he’s laughing, it must be funny.” It should be noted that regardless of gender, when one partner feigns laughter, not only is it awkward, but it could indicate that something may be wrong in the relationship.

Laughter and Cultural Differences

It should be noted that there are also differences regarding how laughter is viewed in Western versus Eastern cultures. People in Eastern cultures do not display laughter in the same animated way as people in the West do. In fact, even a smile in Eastern societies could be equivalent to laughter.  

Finding Ways to Laugh Together

The research by Kurtz and her team shows that laughing together is a supportive activity that helps partners feel closer to one another. How then, can couples find ways to find more humor in their lives?  Some ideas include:

  1. Accepting the absurdity of life.
  2. Smiling more!  Smiling helps with maintaining a positive mindset.
  3. Becoming mindful of stuck or negative thinking patterns.
  4. Keeping an “inside joke” between the two of you.  
  5. Watching a funny TV show or movie that you both like.
  6. Going to a comedy club together.
  7. Having fun together!  Participate in activities that you both enjoy and are likely to be remembered fondly.

Trying to inject more laughter in your relationship may be less about“taking action-oriented steps” and more about adjusting your overall mindset. If you are both still struggling with finding laughter and joy in your relationship, consider seeing a therapist who specializes in couples therapy.

It should be noted that just because a couple doesn’t laugh all the time doesn’t necessarily mean that the relationship is doomed to failure. However, the research does show that laughter can be an important factor for maintaining a healthy relationship, making the relationship stronger, and even increasing the longevity and stability of a relationship. Oh, and of course, most couples tend to really enjoy laughing together too!

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Why Scheduling Arguments Can Save Your Marriage

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.

 

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Having the Same Argument Over and Over Again? Of Course You Are!

 

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“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.

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Your Mother Was Right: The Amazing Power of Gratitude

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:

  1. 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.

  1. Increased financial well-being in the relationship.

  1. Partners felt more appreciated and valued by one another.

  1. Expressing gratitude consistently can help counteract the fallout for a couple in conflict.

  1. Gratitude can help people heal from negative conflict and shield them from the results of poor communication.

  1. 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:

  1. When one accrues credit card debt without sharing with their partner

  2. Not communicating the status of unpaid bills, such as utilities, rent, mortgage, or car payment.

  3. When one partner has a loss of income, such as losing a job.

  4. Hidden spending that you keep secret from your spouse (gambling, drug use, etc.).

  5. Philosophical differences in spending versus saving for retirement.

  6. Struggling to be able to pay for children’s college tuition.

  7. 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.

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