How to solve relationship problems: 5 secrets from research

All couples have arguments. There is no magic, conflict-free relationship. (Sorry.) So how do you fight right? That’s what we’re gonna learn.

Every relationship has problems. And they lead to arguments — which often don’t go anywhere and just make things worse.

One solution is couples therapy. It’s a very good solution, especially if you want to solve things by getting divorced.

From The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples:

In fact, we asked the people who participated in our research if they were getting therapy, and we discovered that there was a reasonably high correlation between getting therapy and getting a divorce. It was more likely that couples would get a divorce if they had therapy than if they had no therapy. This was especially true for individual therapy, but it was also true of couple therapy.

That’s John Gottman, the data driven cupid of academia. He’s renowned as the relationship expert who can listen to a couple talk for just a few minutes and predict whether they’ll split up with an eerie 90+% degree of accuracy.

For decades he’s brought couples into his lab, studied how they interacted and followed up to see whether that worked. And he’s learned a lot. John’s book is The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples.

All couples have arguments. There is no magic, conflict-free relationship. (Sorry.) So how do you fight right? That’s what we’re gonna learn. Where should we start?

How about at the beginning? Because as it turns out, beginnings are critical …

Start discussions gently

As you may have suspected, starting a conversation with “YOU MORON!” is never a good idea.

Seriously, if you don’t want your partner to get defensive and angry then, quite simply, don’t begin a discussion in a way that would make any person defensive and angry.

Sounds obvious but we all do it. And women do it a lot more than men. (Don’t worry; we’ll get to the mistakes men make soon enough.)

From The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples:

The woman’s role here is usually critical, as in heterosexual relationships (in most Western culture) it is the woman who brings up the issues 80% of the time, according to research by Philip and Carolyn Cowan at Berkeley. Again, the findings suggest that starting with attack is less likely to result in nondefensive or empathic listening.

The critical distinction here is between “complaining” and “criticizing.”

Complaining about a specific problem or behavior is totally okay. (“When you’re late, it makes me feel like I’m not important to you.”) But criticizing is when you present the issue as a defect in your partner. (“You’re just so selfish!”)

Telling someone you don’t like their behavior is appropriate and necessary. Accusing them of being a demon spawn succubus forged from an unholy pact in the darkest pits of the netherworld is, shall we say, less-than-constructive.

From The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples:

Happy couples presented issues as joint problems, and specific to one situation. Unhappy couples, on the other hand, presented issues as if they were symptoms of global defects in the partner’s personality.

But some people will respond, “You don’t understand. They always make this mistake and I’m just trying to fix them.”

Overruled, counselor. You’re still doing it, but with a shinier rationalization. Trying to “fix” your partner means you see them as defective. This is the perspective that couples on their way to Splitsville take.

From The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples:

Partners in unhappy relationships saw it as their responsibility to help their partners become better people. They acted as if they believed that the problem in relationships is that we pair with people who aren’t as perfect as we are. Then it becomes our responsibility to point out to our partners how they can become better human beings. They need us to point out their mistakes. We expect them to be grateful to us for our great wisdom. In miserable relationships our habit of mind is to focus on our own irritability and disappointment, and to explain to our partners how they are responsible for these miserable feelings we have.

Don’t raise issues in a way that could be summed up as “Everything would be wonderful if you just get your act together and do exactly as I tell you because you’re the screw-up and I’m the long-suffering victim here.”

Focus on the problem, not the person. And be gentle. Even if you are right, being self-righteous doesn’t help.

(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)

Okay, so you’ve got your head on straight about how to approach things. But your head isn’t the only part of you that’s important here. Your body plays a big part…

Stay calm

I know, easier said than done. But this is huge. The ability to stay physically calm during conflict showed the biggest correlation with relationship happiness of anything Gottman tested.

From The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples:

I recall a landmark phone call in my life from Bob asking me if I had ever obtained high correlations (in the .90s), and him reporting that we had obtained such high correlations in our first 3-year follow-up study, using only physiological data in predicting relationship happiness, controlling for initial levels.

Did you notice the wording there? “Physiological.” As in, your body. So suppressing rage, keeping your mouth shut and appearing chill doesn’t qualify as calm.

When things get emotional, your heart starts racing, the cortisol and adrenalin start pumping and this leads to a cascade of negative effects you can’t control. You have trouble listening, empathizing and problem solving. Gottman calls it “diffuse physiological arousal.”

You and I call it “wigging out.”

From The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples:

In the context of relationship conflict, DPA has big psychological effects. It decreases one’s ability to take in information (reducing hearing and peripheral vision and making it difficult to shift attention away from a defensive posture). It can also create increased defensiveness and what we call the “summarizing yourself syndrome,” which is repeating one’s own position in the hope that one’s partner will suddenly “get it” and become loving again. DPA can reduce the ability to be creative in problem solving, it eliminates access to one’s sense of humor and to affection, and it reduces the ability to listen to one’s partner and empathize.

And this is a bigger problem for men. When put in an emotional situation, men get “flooded” more quickly than women. And once physiologically worked up, it takes them longer to return to baseline.

From The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples:

… there were decreases in blood pressure only for women. Noradrenaline is a stress hormone that operates in the brain and is the equivalent of adrenaline in the periphery. Oxytocin, in her study, decreased noradrenaline levels for women, but not for men. Hence, this research would suggest that men are more vulnerable to DPA…

Ever get into a heated argument and realize it’s going nowhere? Once the stress hormones are hitting the bloodstream at firehose speed, Gottman says constructive, empathetic discussion is impossible. So what do you do?

Well, kids aren’t the only ones that can benefit from a time-out. You can’t “insist” that your body relax. So Gottman recommends taking a 20-minute break. And distract yourself during that time. (Bitterly mumbling to yourself for 20 minutes isn’t going to make Round 2 any easier.)

When you’re both calmer, try again.

(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)

So maybe you manage to stay all Zen. Great. But now you’re in the thick of the conversation. What should you be saying to make sure it doesn’t go off the rails?

Stay positive

Yeah, sounds obvious. But this isn’t some silly little truism — it’s a powerful insight from real data. You want a ratio of five positive comments for every negative one.

From The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples:

The ratio of positive to negative affect during conflict in stable relationships is 5:1; in couples headed for divorce, it is 0.8:1 or less.

Even in the midst of arguments, the successful couples Gottman studied frequently sprinkled in positive statements like: “Good point”, “Say more about how you feel and what you need”, and “If that’s so important to you let’s find a way to make that happen.”

You want to avoid negative comments that aren’t constructive like: “That is so stupid”, “You’re so selfish” and, “I’d love to hit you with a tire iron and bury you in the crawlspace.”

But don’t forget — the ratio was five to one, not five to zero. Negativity isn’t evil. In fact, a little bit is necessary. Getting angry didn’t cause breakups…

It was escalation of negativity that landed people in divorce court. You yell and then they yell louder and then you yell even louder until the windows are vibrating and the pets are cowering beneath the couch. If this sounds like your fights, may I suggest you don’t get a 30-year mortgage? Because your marriage will likely be over in 6.

From The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples:

It is the escalation of negativity, marked particularly by criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling, that predicts divorce. We found that couples who escalated conflict divorced an average of about 5.6 years after their wedding.

When things get heated, use humor. Calling your partner a joke is not a good idea but making a joke during a fight can help de-escalate conflict.

From The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples:

(Positive affect) was the only variable that predicted both couple stability and happiness in our newlywed study. Furthermore, the positive affect was not distributed evenly or randomly during the conflict conversation — rather, it was used precisely — it was in the service of conflict deescalation. Positive affect and deescalation were used in the service of physiological soothing, particularly of the male in heterosexual relationships. That’s why even small amounts of positive affect during conflict predicted positive outcomes in the relationship. Bob Levenson’s lab has also found that humor is effective at reducing physiological arousal.

(To learn 3 secrets from neuroscience that will help you quit bad habits without willpower, click here.)

Maybe you’re doing good so far. But there’s a point when you just want it to end. You can’t handle any more talking or any more feelings. Like you’ve been through thirty days of Guantanamo Bay waterboarding and you’re all I’ll-tell-you-whatever-you-want-to-know-just-make-this-stop.

Yes, men, I’m looking at you …

Accept influence

Don’t deny your partner’s feelings and try to shut them up. Hear them out. That doesn’t mean “just continue nodding until the words finally stop coming out of their face.” It means actually pay attention to and consider what they’re saying.

Guys have a big problem with this one — and it can kill a relationship.

From The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples:

Men’s acceptance of influence from their female partner was critical for well-functioning heterosexual relationships. The inability to accept influence from women was a stable predictor of relationship meltdown.

When women complain, men often emotionally disengage or get defensive and this just escalates things. The point isn’t that you have to fold and give in, you just have to listen and make it clear you’re listening.

From The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples:

This is manifested in one of two patterns of rejecting influence: (1) male emotional disengagement (which eventually becomes mutual emotional disengagement), or (2) male escalation (belligerence, contempt, defensiveness) in response to their wives’ low-intensity negative affect (complaining). The (happily married) men don’t reject influence from their women as often. They tend to say things like “okay,” or “good point,” or “you’re making perfect sense, really,” or “you’re starting to convince me.” This is not compliance; it is lively give and take. To be powerful in a relationship we must be capable of accepting influence on some things our partner wants.

(To learn how to have a happy marriage, click here.)

But what about those arguments you have over and over and over again? Will they ever get resolved?

Actually, uh, no …

Often, nobody wins. So play nice.

Almost 70% of recurring relationship disagreements never get resolved.

From The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples:

…we learned that only 31% of couples’ major area of continuing disagreement was about a resolvable issue. Much more frequently—69% of the time—it was about an unresolvable perpetual problem.

Unless it’s a true dealbreaker (“You really need to stop sleeping with the UPS guy”), let it go. You have to accept your partner “as-is.”

Nobody is perfect. You’re not perfect. When you get involved with anyone, you’re accepting a set of problems. You just want to make sure you’re with someone whose problems you can handle.

From The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples:

We found that what mattered most was not resolution of these perpetual problems but the affect that occurred around discussion of them. The goal of happily married couples seemed to be establish a “dialogue” around the perpetual problem — one that included shared humor and affection and communicated acceptance of the partner and even amusement.

Discuss the issue, but don’t expect that it’ll ever get resolved to everyone’s complete satisfaction. It’s more about how you discuss it. Be accepting, affectionate and laugh about it.

(To learn how to deal with passive aggressive people, click here.)

Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Time to round it all up and learn the final (and much more pleasant) thing that can help smooth romantic difficulties…

Sum up

This is how to solve relationship problems:

  • Start gently: Complain but don’t criticize. Focus on the problem, not the person.
  • Stay calm: When your pulse goes up, happiness goes down.
  • Stay positive: “Five To One” isn’t just a song by The Doors; it’s also the key to a happy relationship.
  • Accept influence: Really listening to your partner’s needs can make sure I never see a true crime documentary on Dateline NBC about the end of your relationship.
  • Often, nobody wins. So play nice: If your attitude is “my way or the highway” then I hope you like traffic jams. As Aristotle never said, “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”

So what else should you do in order to make a relationship work and get past problems? It’s not all about arguing the right way …

You need to have fun. Keep making an effort, keep having adventures, keep acting like you did when you first started dating.

From The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples:

In relationships that were happy, people continued courtship and intimacy and nurtured emotional connection, friendship, fun, adventure, and playfulness.

Even in the middle of a fight, it’s important to remember the person in front of you is the person you love. Love isn’t just a noun; it’s also a verb. Love’s not just something you have, it’s something you do.

And if you can continue to do it in the midst of an argument, then you can be happy after it ends.

And isn’t that what we all want? Happily ever after?

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This article first appeared in 2014 on Barking up the Wrong Tree.

Eric Barker|is the author of "Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong." He is also the author of the website by the same name.