By the look on their faces, as they watch us in “heated discussion”, some people seem to think happily married couples mustn’t argue. Therapists talk about “unconditional positive regard”, and many people seem to think marriages should be built that way, couples who smile at each other all the time, no matter what.
Then real life steps in. One of you does something that triggers the other. The reply is less than tactful, or you are both tired or stressed. Bang! The result is either yelling or a cold shoulder. It cannot be avoided. People are built that way. We fight.
But do fights kill marriages? Well, for sure not always. Monica O’Neal (a clinical psychologist who lectures at Harvard Medical School) is quoted as saying “a lack of arguing indicates a lack of truthfulness and emotional intimacy.” The key is not avoiding fights at all costs, but how we fight. “The healthiest couples also seek to resolve arguments, are able adjust to the resolutions, and then can to forgive and move on.”
John Gottmann (we mentioned his “love lab” in the previous post in this series) talks about “repair attempts”. That is something silly or sensible that we do “that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.” These are different for different couples, but “[w]hen a couple have a strong friendship, they naturally become experts at sending each other repair attempts and at correctly reading those sent their way.”
He gives an example: when Nathaniel and Olivia are in a full flight fight, one of them imitates their four-year-old, hands on hips sticking his tongue out. The other recognising the move makes the gesture first. Fight turns to laughter.
The secret is not avoiding all conflict, but respect and liking. Friends fight and then make up, or like Nathaniel and Olivia defuse the aggression.