Conflicts between married couples are a normal part of growing together. But there’s a difference between conflicts that involve working out solutions and conflicts that break out into a fight.
Solution-focused conflicts often bring couples closer to each other. Fights usually leave one or both spouses feeling hurt by the other and are often about nothing.
Early in our marriage, my wife and I would fight about nothing. A typical fight would go like this:
“Let’s take a walk,” she would say.
“I’m too tired,” I’d answer.
“So, you’re just going to be lazy and sit there on the couch the whole evening?” Her contempt was veiled with mock curiosity.
“I’m just exhausted from work. I just need to relax. Is that OK?” I’d say defensively.
“So, you just want me to walk by myself?”
“No, I don’t. I would just rather relax.”
“Watching the news with you isn’t my idea of relaxing. I’ve been cooped up inside all day. I need to get outside and get some fresh air.”
“Fine,” I’d say. “Then go!”
Sometimes our fights would be more heated. I’d end up angrily yelling at her. She’d end up giving me the silent treatment. But most fights were like this, lacking substance. In either case, we’d end up feeling distant from each other — and with some degree of hurt between us, making mountains out of mole hills.
This is a common pattern for many couples. The more a couple remains stuck in this pattern, the more disconnected they feel from each other. The longer the pattern persists, the more distant a couple can feel from each other.
If frequent fights over nothing leave you feeling disconnected from your spouse, consider these tips developed over decades of research by psychologist John Gottman. By observing hundreds of couples, Gottman has identified what works to help couples connect so they can become best friends instead of frustrated fighters.
1.) Practice identifying bids for connection. Married couples who fight a lot tend to get hung up on their spouse’s negative comments and emotions. When husbands or wives hear a critical comment or their spouse expresses a negative emotion, they disconnect and go their separate ways. What they fail to recognize is that underlying the comment or emotion is a bid for connection.
When my wife accused me of laziness by wanting to stay tuned to the TV rather than walk with her, that was a bid for connection. For her, walking together was an intimate activity. Walking together gave her an opportunity to talk and be heard without distractions. All I heard was that I was lazy for not walking with her. It makes sense I responded defensively, but my reaction left us disconnected.
When my wife said, “Let’s take a walk,” that was her bid for connection.
When my wife said, “Let’s take a walk,” that was her bid for connection. If I had recognized her bid for connection, I could have said, “You’re really wanting to have some one-on-one time with me, aren’t you?” She would have responded positively and wouldn’t have felt the need to prod me with criticism.
When your spouse complains or criticizes you, look past the words and emotion — and be curious about what he or she looking for from you. Instead of being defensive, try asking about the desire or dream that your spouse is wanting to fulfill. Try talking about that instead of fighting.
2.) Understand your spouse’s “love map.” This means you have a deep knowledge of his or her world, including your partner’s likes, dislikes, hopes, and dreams. Happily married couples are constantly updating their understanding of each other’s love maps. They do this by asking open-ended questions, remembering the answers — then asking more questions. This is something many couples do while dating, but forget to keep doing after they’re married.
Love maps create a strong foundation for friendship. The stronger the friendship, the better couples become at detecting each other’s bids for connection. If I had worked on understanding my wife a little better, I would have known that satisfaction with her relationship is built by spending quality time together.
3.) Cultivate fondness and respect. Early in our marriage, I began to take my wife for granted. That’s less likely to happen when a couple is dating. Until there’s a commitment to the relationship, couples often express an abundance of fondness and respect for each other.
Once couples tie the knot, they tend to relax. Many get too relaxed. Over time, they become less attentive to each other.
If they feel more appreciated and respected at work, or among friends, it’s no surprise that couples will lose their sense of “we-ness,” and loyalty to their relationship erodes.
Working out problems to each other’s satisfaction is much easier when the parties are invested in each other. Spouses build that kind of investment in each other when they focus on each other’s positive attributes. Each time they compliment each other and express gratitude for each other’s better qualities, they make a deposit that grows into an attitude of fondness and respect. Instead of fighting about nothing, they feel safe talking about what they really want in their relationship.
Jon Beaty, counselor and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of the book “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”