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When couples aregue – as we all know by experience or observation – the exercise is largely a waste of time; it doesn’t solve anything. Worse, it can actually aggravate discontent and weaken an otherwise healthy relationship.

The irony is that sixty eight percent of the things people in a long-term relationship argue about have no single answer or solution. What is the ‘right way’ to raise kids anyway, or a truly fair way to split the domestic chores when your lifestyles don’t allow for time to do them?

John Gottman, the american psychologist and author with 40 years’ worth of research on the subject, has studied how long-term couples survive. His research has shown up some interesting patterns that people fall into. One of them concerns survival of the relationship, and the other its demise. He is so sure about what he has learned that these two patterns can actually pedict whether or not the relationship will eventually earn the title ‘long-term’.

I should  say by the way, and so as not to spook you, that if you recognise any of this as happening in your own twosome it’s because all couples do these things, not (necessarily) because your coupledom is teetering on the brink of terminal breakdown.

The first pattern concerns how we argue (much more important than what we argue about). Long-lasting couples eventually settle on one of three ‘agreed’ methods of dealing with conflict. Gottman has neat labels for each of these three styles but you’ll have to read his book to find out what they are, because I can’t remember.

Essentially the couple either ignore their differences altogether and just get on with things; they discuss disagreements noisily in a shouting match; or they do a kind of spontaneous affirming conversation that you’d normally only hear in family therapy (“I understand that you don’t like it when I leave the toilet seat up and I’d like you to know that I don’t do it to annoy you, but through oversight. I’ll do my best to remember to out it down in future”).

What’s important here is that they both react to conflict by responding in the same manner; they both shout, or they both discuss, or they both ignore the problem… This ‘agreement’ may be tacit – nobody actually discussed and decided on it – but they nevertheless both do it, even though they probably don’t like it (arguing, that is).

Gottman has named the the second pattern is called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They are the fours stages that a couple can pass through on its way to a resigned but dissatisfied silence where the partners can no longer communicate effectively, or in some cases, at all (though it’s been said that you cannot not communicate; even no communication is a communication, but that’s another story).

The Four Horsemen define a slippery slope which, if you recognise it, you can choose to step away from thus averting disaster. Forgive me if I don’t go into them in greater detail here, but this is not the place to do it and the details are not relevant to my main point. Which is…

…It is not WHAT we argue about that is important, it is HOW we argue. Couples that survive still have disagreements, but they don’t allow toxic resentment and contempt to eat away the essentials of trust and respect that are the mainstay of healthy relationships.

See also

Gottman, J., (2003), Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Virago, London

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