Arguing & Marriage

Questions I have heard before from many of my clients: How often do healthy couples argue? Is there an art to having a successful argument? My partner and I have grown tremendously by talking through our disagreements, but I sometimes wonder if it's happening too frequently, or that we're dwelling on the negative. Are there "best practices" when it comes to arguments?

Here are my thoughts on arguments in relationships:
Healthy couples definitely argue regularly, but they do so in a loving way. Think of arguments as “need-seeking missiles;” the key is to learn how to send and receive one another’s feelings and longings so that these interactions become more like Cupid’s arrows, rather than bombs that destroy love. From John Gottman’s research with thousands of couples (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AKTyPgwfPgg&t=4s), we know that conflict can be the royal road to deepening trust and intimacy between partners. Conflict actually becomes a relationship strength if you are regularly talking through your disagreements; every time you listen to each other and come away feeling better understood, you will find each other to be evermore reliable life partners. There doesn’t seem to be a rate of frequency for arguing that indicates relationship health. Partners in loving relationships learn to navigate feelings and needs as often as necessary for each to feel understood and cared for.

Your question about whether you are dwelling on the negative is a common concern in our “Put On a Happy Face” culture. But it turns out that being able to accept and attend to your partner’s negative - challenging - emotions is the essential building block of lasting love. Our feelings arise from, and are expressions of, our needs; communicating them and having them attended to by a loved one translates to, “Wow, you really ARE there for me. You really DO care about me!” As Gottman observes, “Within every negative emotion is a longing, and within every longing is a recipe for connection.”

So, what are some important ways that loving couples listen for their partner’s longings, in order to foster more closeness and trust? What is best practice when it comes to arguments? In one study, Gottman categorized and counted couples’ interactions: “positive” ones like showing interest or finding humor together and “negative” interactions such as zoning out or interrupting. In non-conflict times, the ratio of positive to negative interactions was 20:1 in stable couples. When these couples argued, the ratio dropped to 5:1, meaning that even in conflict, they still showed more positivity than negativity.

This math highlights the importance of taking opportunities to “tune in” to each other. Every bit of trust and closeness we gain from times of being available for each other equates to deposits in an emotional bank account that we draw on during conflict. Long-term love is like slow dancing in a crowded space; we are going to bump into each other frequently. When this inevitably happens in a relationship where we’ve been making deposits into our emotional bank account, conflict looks and feels different - more manageable. Couples who strive for that 20:1 ratio in everyday moments are able to raise issues with relative gentleness and avoid the four toxic relationship killers: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (https://youtu.be/1o30Ps-_8is) that occur commonly in couples who haven’t maintained their emotional bank account. Expressing feelings and needs gently and responding attentively allow couples to move from heartbreak warfare to becoming soldiers of love.

Jonathan Shippey