Healthy Marriages, Relationship Tips

Learn to Fight Fair

Great article I found on []:

“You’re trying to change me,” Leslie blurted as we sat down for dinner.

“What are you talking about?” I demanded with as much piety and surprise as I could muster. Truth be told, I knew exactly what she was talking about. I was trying to change her. She knew it. I knew it. I just didn’t want her to know that I knew. It had been tense in our little apartment ever since we got home from work. The issue? Who knows. It happened more than 25 years ago. All I recall is that I’d made some inane comment about not being able to find something I could always find in my kitchen growing up.

“I’m talking about the way you make snippy comments,” Leslie said as she tried to restrain her tears. “No matter what I do, it’s not good enough.”

“That’s not true,” I said defensively. “Give me one good example of how I’m critical.” That was a mistake. For the next several minutes, she’d give a specific example, and I’d attempt to show exactly how reasonable my critical comment was. It was a game of mental pingpong that no one would win. Actually, it was a fight — our first fight as a married couple.

Finally, Leslie said something to end the tiresome bout. “The point is, I’m trying to be a good wife, and I feel like I’m disappointing you.”

“You’re not disappointing me,” I responded in an attempt to keep her from crying. But it was too late to prevent her tears. I sat helpless, not knowing what to do or where to go.

Leslie, on the other hand, knew exactly where she wanted to go — back home. Sitting in that tiny apartment in the middle of Los Angeles, beginning graduate school as well as a marriage, Leslie wanted nothing more than to be somewhere safe and sound. We both did.

We’ll be honest — Leslie and I still have fights. But thankfully, they are less frequent and more productive than they used to be. And in the 25 years since that first real fight, we’ve learned a lot about finding safe, common ground when the fur starts to fly. Here’s what we’ve learned:

Conflict can be good for your marriage

One of the thoughts that went through Leslie’s mind when we had our first fight in that tiny kitchen was that there must be something wrong with us — that loving couples don’t fight. We’ve since learned that this simply isn’t true.

Consider the reasons for marital spats. First, people are not perfect — and neither is the world we live in. While it makes logical sense that there are no perfect marriages, many of us are still surprised when we encounter conflict and expect our marriage to be different. Another factor that adds fuel to the fire of marital fights is the human tendency to resist compromise. Every day, couples have individual desires, big and small, that collide. A compromise is needed if they are ever going to resolve their conflict. Yet for most people, compromise is difficult and conflict is thus inevitable.

But the goal of marriage is not to avoid conflict. Not by a long shot. If handled correctly, conflict can help build a stronger marriage. In fact, we’ve come to believe that conflict is the price smart couples pay for a deepening sense of intimacy. Conflict helps us peel away the superficial layers of a relationship and discover who we really are. When Ruth Graham was asked if she and her famous husband, Billy, ever fight, she said, “I hope so. Otherwise we would have no differences, and life would be pretty boring.”

No matter how deeply a man and woman love each other, they will encounter conflict. It’s a natural component of every healthy marriage. The truth is that buried conflict has a high rate of resurrection. If something is bothering one of you, it is always best to put it out on the table and discuss it. So don’t bury your differences. Instead, view them as a potential source for cultivating a deeper sense of intimacy. Of course, to do this, you must learn to fight fair.

Seeing the world through your spouse’s eyes makes a difference

Several years ago I was conducting a training seminar for elementary school teachers. To help them better understand the world of a third-grader, I gave them the assignment of walking through their classroom on their knees. “I always assumed students were viewing the classroom as I was,” said one teacher. “It looks so different from their perspective.”

We make the same error in marriage when we assume we know what our spouse is experiencing. We don’t. Everyone interprets life from a composite of unique insights and perceptions. Only after entering our spouse’s world with our heart and our head can we accurately understand his or her perspective. To look at life through the same lens means asking two questions: 1) What does this situation, problem or event look or feel like from my spouse’s perspective? and 2) How is his or her perception different from mine? Accurately understanding your spouse’s hurts and hopes will change you. Once you consciously feel his or her feelings and understand his or her perspective, you will see the world differently. And in the majority of cases, empathy is enough to bring a marital conflict to a screeching halt. It sets the stage for two simple words: “I’m sorry.”

An apology can either hinder or help

When one partner blows it and the offense is minor (maybe someone forgets to put gas in the car after promising to do so), a graceful apology is all it takes for the incident to be dropped. At other times, an apology can be surprisingly complicated.

Like lots of couples, one husband and wife we worked with would regularly short-circuit their arguments with hasty apologies. “I said I was sorry for what I did,” one of them would say. “Now why can’t you forget about it and move on?”

This form of apology is really a tool of manipulation. It’s a way of getting off the hook and avoiding the real issue. What’s worse, a premature apology blocks real change. One husband snapped at his wife at a dinner party. Later he said, “I’m sorry, but look, you have to understand that I’ve been under a lot of stress lately.” The husband was avoiding responsibility for his insensitive behavior. What his wife needed to hear was, “I’m sorry. It isn’t right to lash out at you when I’m stressed.” This would have communicated that her husband understood he had hurt her and would try not to do it again.

All couples need a healing mechanism, a way to turn a new page in marriage. Knowing how and when to say you’re sorry can make a big difference. Ask yourself when and how you apologize. Does one of you apologize more than the other? Do you use apologies to whitewash issues? A sincere apology will leave you with a relieved sense of the air being cleared and a renewed feeling of closeness.

Staying focused on the problem is more likely to lead to a resolution

Remember to attack the problem, not the person. Our natural impulse during conflict is to defend and protect our position, not to accommodate the other person. If you accuse your spouse of always making you late, she is probably not going to say, “Oh, you’re right. I’ll be different from now on.” She is more likely to tell you that you only make it worse by pressuring her or that you are too impatient or a hundred other reasons why she is not at fault. You will be far more productive if you focus on the problem of being late and work together, as a team, to devise a way of avoiding it. In other words, separate the problem from the person.

If we were to sum up fighting fair in a single word, it would be cooperate. You must be willing to flex and yield to your spouse. Scripture says, “Wisdom . . . is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17). If you cultivate a cooperative attitude with your spouse, you will save yourself and your marriage a lot of unnecessary grief. And you will have found the secret to fighting a good fight.

Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott are New York Times best-selling authors and the founders of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University.

Tips for Fighting Fair

  • Start your sentences with “I” instead of “You” — “I feel frustrated when we’re late” is easier to hear than “You always make us late.”
  • Keep your fighting away from your kids — unless you model how to resolve it in front of them.
  • Stay clear of “character assassination” — don’t assign negative labels to each other (e.g., “You’re so lazy”).
  • If you need a timeout, take it — but agree on when you’ll come back.
  • Avoid expressing contempt by rolling your eyes or being sarcastic — it’s toxic to your relationship.

For more on fighting fair, watch Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott at “Improving Conflict Resolution.”

For more on fighting fair in marriage, see Dr. Juli Slattery’s article, Fighting Fair and Dr. Greg Smalley’s How Fighting Can Help Your Marriage.

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Healthy Marriages, Relationship Tips

Gottman’s 4 Horsemen and Communication Styles

Great info from an article found on [The Gottman Institute’s Blog]

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a metaphor depicting the end of times in the New Testament. They describe conquest, war, hunger, and death respectively. Dr. Gottman uses this metaphor to describe communication styles that can predict the end of a relationship.

The first horseman of the apocalypse is criticism. Criticizing your partner is different than offering a critique or voicing a complaint. The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an ad hominem attack. It is an attack on your partner at the core. In effect, you are dismantling his or her whole being when you criticize.

  • Complaint: “I was scared when you were running late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.”
  • Criticism: “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. I don’t believe you are that forgetful, you’re just selfish! You never think of others! You never think of me!”

If you find that you are your partner are critical of each other, don’t assume your relationship is doomed to fail. The problem with criticism is that, when it becomes pervasive, it paves the way for the other, far deadlier horsemen. It makes the victim feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt, and often causes the perpetrator and victim to fall into an escalating pattern where the first horseman reappears with greater and greater frequency and intensity.

The second horseman is contempt. When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean – treating others with disrespect, mocking them with sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, mimicking, and/or body language such as eye-rolling. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.

“You’re ‘tired?’ Cry me a river. I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do when you come home from work is flop down on that sofa like a child and play those idiotic computer games. I don’t have time to deal with another kid – try to be more pathetic…” 

In his research, Dr. Gottman found that couples that are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness (colds, the flu, etc.) than others, as their immune systems weaken! Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner – which come to a head in the perpetrator attacking the accused from a position of relative superiority. Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce according to Dr. Gottman’s work. It must be eliminated.

The third horseman is defensiveness. We’ve all been defensive. This horseman is nearly omnipresent when relationships are on the rocks. When we feel accused unjustly, we fish for excuses so that our partner will back off. Unfortunately, this strategy is almost never successful. Our excuses just tell our partner that we don’t take them seriously, trying to get them to buy something that they don’t believe, that we are blowing them off.

  • She: “Did you call Betty and Ralph to let them know that we’re not coming tonight as you promised this morning?”
  • He: “I was just too darn busy today. As a matter of fact you know just how busy my schedule was. Why didn’t you just do it?”

He not only responds defensively, but turns the table and makes it her fault. A non-defensive response would have been:

“Oops, I forgot. I should have asked you this morning to do it because I knew my day would be packed. Let me call them right now.” 

Although it is perfectly understandable for the male to defend himself in the example given above, this approach doesn’t have the desired effect. The attacking spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner.

The fourth horseman is stonewalling. Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction. In other words, stonewalling is when one person shuts down and closes himself/herself off from the other. It is a lack of responsiveness to your partner and the interaction between the two of you.  Rather than confronting the issues (which tend to accumulate!) with our partner, we make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive behaviors. It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable “out,” but when it does, it frequently becomes a habit.

Pay close attention the next time you find yourself engaged in a difficult conversation with your partner, a friend, or even with your children. See if you can spot any of The Four Horsemen, and try to observe their effects on the people involved.

Being able to identify The Four Horsemen in your conflict discussions is a necessary first step to eliminating them, but this knowledge is not enough. To drive away destructive communication patterns, you must replace them with healthy, productive ones. Click here to learn about the antidotes.

I did not write the above article.

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Healthy Marriages

“Keeping your marriage healthy”

This article from [] provides some “basics” on maintaining good relationships:

Romantic relationships are important for our happiness and well-being. Yet with more than 40 percent of new marriages ending in divorce, it’s clear that relationships aren’t always easy.1 Fortunately, there are steps you can take to keep your romantic partnership in good working order.

Talking openly

Communication is a key piece of healthy relationships. Healthy couples make time to check in with one another on a regular basis. It’s important to talk about more than just parenting and maintaining the household, however. Try to spend a few minutes each day discussing deeper or more personal subjects to stay connected to your partner over the long term.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid bringing up difficult subjects. Keeping concerns or problems to yourself can breed resentment. When discussing tough topics, though, it pays to be kind. Researchers have found that communication style is more important than commitment levels, personality traits or stressful life events in predicting whether happily married couples will go on to divorce. In particular, negative communication patterns such as anger and contempt are linked to an increased likelihood of splitting up.2

Disagreements are part of any partnership, but some fighting styles are particularly damaging. Couples that use destructive behavior during arguments — such as yelling, resorting to personal criticisms or withdrawing from the discussion — are more likely to break up than are couples that fight constructively. Examples of constructive strategies for resolving disagreements include attempting to find out exactly what your partner is feeling, listening to his or her point of view and trying to make him or her laugh.3

Keeping it interesting

Between kids, careers and outside commitments, it can be difficult to stay connected to your partner. Yet there are good reasons to make the effort. In one study, for example, researchers found couples that reported boredom during their seventh year of marriage were significantly less satisfied with their relationships nine years later.4

To keep things interesting, some couples plan regular date nights. Even dates can get old, though, if you’re always renting a movie or going to the same restaurant. Experts recommend breaking out of the routine and trying new things — whether that’s going dancing, taking a class together or packing an afternoon picnic.

Intimacy is also a critical component of romantic relationships. Some busy couples find it helpful to schedule sex by putting it on the calendar. It may not be spontaneous to have it written in red ink, but setting aside time for an intimate encounter helps ensure that your physical and emotional needs are met.

When should couples seek help?

Every relationship has ups and downs, but some factors are more likely than others to create bumps in a relationship. Finances and parenting decisions often create recurring conflicts, for example. One sign of a problem is having repeated versions of the same fight over and over. In such cases, psychologists can help couples improve communication and find healthy ways to move beyond the conflict.

You don’t have to wait until a relationship shows signs of trouble before working to strengthen your union. Marital education programs that teach skills such as good communication, effective listening and dealing with conflict have been shown to reduce the risk of divorce.


1 Kreider, R. M. (2005). Number, timing, and duration of marriages and divorces: 2001. Current Population Reports. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau.

2 Lavner, J.A. & Bradbury, T.N. (2012). “Why do even satisfied newlyweds eventually go on to divorce?” Journal of Family Psychology, 26 (1): 1-10.

3 Birditt, K.S., Brown, E., Orbuch, T.L., and McIlvane, J.M. (2010). “Marital conflict behaviors and implications for divorce over 16 years.” Journal of Marriage and Family, 72 (5): 1188-1204.

4 Tsapelas, I., Aron, A., and Orbuch, T. (2009). “Marital boredom now predicts less satisfaction 9 years later.” Psychological Science, 20 (5): 543-545.

Thanks to psychologists Robin S. Haight, PsyD, and Dan Abrahamson, PhD, who assisted with this article.

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