How to Fight Fair
“The way a conflict discussion begins determines how it’s going to end 96 percent of the time,” says John Gottman, Ph.D., a cofounder of the Gottman Institute, in Seattle, which studies marriage and relationships. He can speak with such mathematical accuracy because for 30 years he has observed more than 3,000 couples in a laboratory setting while monitoring their heart rates and other physical signs of stress.
Two people can fight fairly often, Gottman says, and still have a healthy relationship. It’s not about the number of bouts but the techniques used in the ring. He claims that contempt is the best predictor of divorce, so take note if your signature move is dismissive eye-rolling. Other below-the-belt strategies include personal attacks and the silent treatment. Starting a conversation gently is the key to ending it well, he says. Harriet Lerner, a psychologist in Lawrence, Kansas, and the author of Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and the Coupled Up ($16, amazon.com), says to remind yourself to stop talking: “If only people could listen with the same passion they feel about being heard.”
Finally, if you find yourself in the physiological frenzy that Gottman calls “flooding”—racing heart, sweaty palms—stop the argument, even when every cell is screaming, “Annihilate!” Stress hormones inhibit higher cognitive functions, like impulse control and attention. “When we feel threatened, we can’t take in new information,” he says. “In the lab and in therapy sessions, when people take a break, go back to their baseline heart rate, and start the conversation again, it’s like they’ve had a brain transplant.”