Our happiness and well-being, in large part, rely on the strength of our connections. But as far as romantic relationships go, healthy partnerships are not always easy to find and can be challenging to maintain. The COVID-19 lockdowns also presented a real test—many partners lived, worked, and taught children in the same space, straining relationships.
In 1986, John Gottman founded the Gottman Love Lab at the University of Washington, a research institution dedicated to dissecting and analyzing interactions between partners, learning what can make or break a relationship. Ten years later, he founded the Gottman Institute with his wife Julie Gottman, a clinical psychologist. The Gottman method of therapy they developed is based on observations and research from thousands of real couples. One tenet of that therapy, to “turn toward bids for affection” or to respond to your partner when they are reaching out, has become a touchstone for therapists.
Now, the Gottmans have written a new book, Fight Right: How Successful Couples Turn Conflict Into Connection. The book draws on nearly 50 years of research, offering a guide to deal with the challenges that nearly every couple will face.
I talked with the Gottmans about which problems couples should pay attention to, how to recover in the middle of a difficult fight, and how to use conflict as a way to strengthen connection, among other subjects. Here is our conversation, edited for clarity.
Hope Reese: What characterizes today’s fights?
Julie Gottman: There’s a number of things. One is that there appears to be much more divisiveness, as you can see in our society politically, giving rise to fights in relationships. People really don’t know how to listen and respond to each other’s point of view. There’s no sense that people have the right to formulate their own opinions and thoughts.
And people are emerging out of COVID like a gopher coming up from underground—trying to figure out what hit them, processing a lot of losses. The kids are a mess. Teenagers have the highest level of depression and suicidality we’ve ever seen. And parents feel very stressed by those factors.
John Gottman: We’re seeing a lot more of what we call the standoff—“win-lose” fighting, there has to be a winner and a loser. The zero-sum game is much more common in relationships. People just don’t compromise on anything—they feel like compromise is selling out, giving up too much. Part of this is a result of decreasing amounts of trust people have in one another.
HR: You distinguish between “perpetual” and “solvable” fights. Can you talk more about perpetual fights? How are they different?
Julie Gottman: Sixty-nine percent of all problems are perpetual, which means that they’re based on either lifestyle preference differences or personality differences. Everybody’s going to have perpetual problems, because nobody’s a clone to another person. These have to do with past history, how they were raised, what values they carry, what is really important to their sense of life purpose. Sometimes the most trivial little fights contain those underlying roots. This leads to gridlock, where people fight on the surface but never resolve it, because they’re not talking about the right thing. We need to get to where the origins of this fight live inside each person.
HR: What kinds of issues are the most important to fix?
Julie Gottman: The kinds of things that we really need to focus on often seem like the most trivial events. Like your partner’s ability to connect with you when you’re feeling sad or lonely or angry or alienated. In great relationships, people have the model that “when my partner is upset, the world stops and I listen.” Turning toward your partner in these very small moments really builds a foundation that carries over into conflict.
When there’s a high probability that people will respond to their partners’ bids for attention, conversation, affection, then they have a sense of humor. When they disagree, they can laugh at themselves, and they can laugh together. The most likely cause of conflict is feeling like you’re alone with some situation—you don’t have your partner to turn toward, you don’t have anybody to count on. So we need to fix those things first.
HR: In the beginning of a fight, how can you ensure that things stay constructive?
John Gottman: The first three minutes of a conflict determine how it’s going to go 96% of the time. We urge people to begin with a gentler way of starting a conversation about an area of conflict. To start by talking about themselves and what they feel, and expressing a positive need, and sticking to a situation rather than describing their partner and blaming the relationship problem on some trait of the partner—some lasting qualities that need to change. Then they can expect somewhat less defensiveness in response to their complaint.
People used to say, “If you’re going to be a great listener, what you have to say is something like, ‘When you do X, I feel Y.’” That is a really bad startup because it starts with “you.” If you start with that statement, you create defensiveness—because nobody can hear that kind of statement. But if you stay with yourself and express a positive need, then the conversations go much better.
When people are coordinating with one another, even when they disagree, they give all these signals that they’re really interested in what they are saying. They nod their heads. They have these brief vocalizations, like “Oh, OK. Wow. That’s really interesting. Fair point. Tell me more about that.” I carry a notebook in my back pocket. When Julie has something she wants to talk about, I take it out and write what she’s saying, which down-regulates my own defensiveness.
It’s that listening that really undergirds everything. You want to understand where your common ground is. You want to understand what your partner is saying. And so those very small cues grease the wheels of communication, and they add this positivity. Curiosity is very powerful in getting couples into a collaborative mode. Take notes, try to summarize what your partner is saying, try to validate what your partner is saying.
Julie Gottman: And if you see any of the “four horsemen”—criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling—you’re diving into dark territory.
HR: You write about being “flooded”—the physical manifestation of getting overwhelmed during conflict. What does that look like?
Julie Gottman: You’re in fight, flight, or freeze, because you feel so attacked by what your partner is saying. Because of the physiological changes that flooding causes, you’re not able to hear your partner accurately, to speak accurately about what you really think or feel. You get tunnel vision, tunnel hearing. All you can do is act like a saber-toothed tiger under attack.
You know that you’re in that state by first watching for your own signature. Your body may get hot when you’re getting flooded, you may be clenching your teeth, your fist, you may feel kicked in the gut. The biggest one is—is your heart rate over 100 beats a minute? (And if you’re super athletic, over about 85 beats.) Those heart rates typically are a great gauge that you are flooded.
HR: So then what do you do in that moment, when you’re frozen?
Julie Gottman: Here’s how to handle that. First, you say, either, “I’m flooded and I need to take a break,” or “I think we are getting flooded. I need to take a break.” Never say “YOU are flooded. You need to take a break.” Never do that. Tell your partner when you’ll come back to continue the conversation. Might be 20 to 30 minutes, maximum of 24 hours.
By telling your partner when you’ll come back to continue the conversation, they know they’re not being rejected or abandoned. When you [take a break], you don’t want to be thinking about the fight. You have to take your mind off that fight by self-soothing. Soothing can mean anything, including reading a magazine, reading a book, doing yoga, listening to music, going for a run, or playing with the puppy. Anything that puts your mind away from the fight. Otherwise, you keep metabolizing the stress hormones. Then you come back at the time that you agreed to.
HR: Have you noticed gender differences when it comes to how men and women behave in conflict?
John Gottman: One of the things that we discovered, which took years of following couples, was that women’s ability to be angry in a relationship—which a lot of couples’ therapists say is a destructive emotion—predicts good things for the future of the relationship. And when women stifle their anger, it predicts bad things in their relationships. It doesn’t go the other way. It’s women’s anger that winds up being a resource in the relationship—as long as it’s not done with contempt or criticism or defensiveness.
HR: Doesn’t the success of this strategy depend on how the partner responds?
John Gottman: What’s critical is accepting influence. Being able to say, “Interesting. Good point. Tell me more. I kind of get what you’re saying.”
Julie Gottman: Or “Tell me what you need.” That’s my favorite! There’s another gender difference that has to do with men. In our studies, about 80-85% of our stonewallers [who withdrew, shut down, or distanced themselves] were men, which means that men were much more likely to have that jacked-up heart rate, blood pressure, and going into a fight-or-flight than women were. And when they went into that state, it was harder for them to come out of it.
Women were able to stay calmer more of the time, even though sometimes they would get very emotional. You can be intensely emotional without flooding. Flooding is really the physiological state of fight-or-flight.
HR: What’s a piece of general advice you can give to couples who are struggling? Maybe something unexpected?
Julie Gottman: Look for what your partner’s doing right, instead of what your partner is doing wrong, and say thank you. Every single day.
John Gottman: Research that a woman named Caryl Rusbult has done in the area of commitment is so important. When you’re upset, you want to talk to your partner about what you’re feeling and what you need, rather than talking to somebody else about your partner. When things aren’t going well, you start thinking, “I can do better than this relationship.” You compare the relationship to real or imagined other relationships.
You need to give voice to your complaints with your partner. Don’t avoid talking about what you feel and what you’re needing. Your partner is the one who really needs to hear this. When you give voice to your complaints, you’re building commitment in the relationship, building this idea that you cherish your partner as someone who’s irreplaceable.