The question of what distinguishes a happy marriage from one that is
unhappy is as old as the institution of marriage itself. But are the factors that make a happy relationship right now can be very different than what makes a marriage successful in the long term. Or at least that was the hypothesis American psychologist John M. Gottman set out to proof in the 1980s.
To get to the bottom of it, he and his colleague Lowell J. Krokoff invited two groups of couples into his laboratory at the University of Washington. The first group of couples was young. At around 30 years old, they had been married for an average of 4.2 years. Not exactly the honeymoon phase, but early enough to not have experienced the Seven Year Itch, yet. The second group was seasoned veterans of married life. At an average age of 45 years and 24 of marriage, we can assume that those couples went through, and survived many of life’s ups- and downs.
First, everyone got quizzed about how happy and satisfied they were in their relationship. Afterward, the researchers placed every couple in a room together. They were told to discuss one topic that they both disagreed on with each other. Gottman and his colleagues videotaped those conversations. Later they analyzed the recording to find out how the two people interacted with each other. Did they get into an actual argument (“Conflict Engagement”?) If so, how did that go?
In the last step, the researchers waited two years to contact the couples again. They had them fill out the same questionnaire about their relationship satisfaction and compared the results to their previous satisfaction and communication patterns.
The result: No matter how long they had been together, couples that did not engage in the conflict were happier at the moment — and more likely to divorce or be unhappy in the future.
But it’s not as easy as hurling insults at each other every time the chance arises. When zooming in, Gottman found that while open confrontation and even anger can be positive in the long term, other reactions are not. Through his later research, Gottman coined those detrimental behaviors the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. Behaviors during arguments that have a strong negative impact on your relationship. Here they are listed in the order they often appear in arguments:
Fighting, but the right way
So far we have seen that arguments are an integral part of a health long-term relationship. We’ve also seen (and probably experienced) that not all conflicts are created equal. But if arguments can go sideways and damage our relationships, how do we avoid the four horsemen. How do we get them right?
This is where Non-Violent Communication (NVC) comes into play. Developed by clinical psychologist Marshall Rosenberg about 50 years ago, NVC acknowledges that words can be weapons and akin to physical violence. Imagine a person coming at you swinging their fists, what do you do? Option 1: You run and withdraw from the fight. Option 2: Your immediately raise your arms to block them off and defend yourself. Both are not constructive when trying to solve a problem. But the same behavior can happen in verbal fights.
What is Non-Violent Communication?
Before getting into details, I want to start with an assumption. Every time you are starting an argument with your significant other, you are ultimately doing it to make your relationship a better place. Yet, in the heat of the moment, when tensions are rising this noble goal can feel far out of reach. Non Violent Communication is about compassion. The first step is to acknowledge that your words can hurt your partner. With that in mind, here are the 4 (5) steps to avoid exactly that and take the heat out of an argument before it has the time to boil over:
Step 0: Find the right time
Technically, not part of the process as described by Rosenberg, it is vital to find the right situation to start your conversation. NVC is a process to better understand each other and can take some time. Doing it in a pinch, like in the morning with only 3 minutes left before you have to go to work won’t work. Similarly, it also works best when both of you can focus all your energy on each other and the situation at hand. If you or your partner is stressed or mentally occupied by other things, it gets easy to miss small nuances in the conversation. Thus, make sure that you have both the time and headspace before you start.
The best way to begin is not to take your partner by surprise. Instead, start by asking if they have time and are ready to talk about whatever is on your mind. One example would be to start with “Hey, I wanted to talk to you about our date yesterday, do you have some time for that?”
Of course, if the answer is “no”, we have to respect that. There is no time limit on these conversations. So use the chance to ask for an alternative day or time while you are already on it.
Step 1: Describe a situation
The first step is to ensure that both of you are on the same page and talk about the same thing. To archive that, think first about what you want to discuss and describe a situation as precisely as possible. “Yesterday we went for dinner at X. After ordering food, your phone rang with Y calling. You took it and ended up talking to them on the phone for 25 minutes.”
This works, because you are describing facts. Without judgments from your side, there are only two reactions at this stage. Either your partner can acknowledge your description of the situation, or dispute them if they remember details differently. (Sidenote, imagine you’ve started right into the argument when you and your partner have a very different memory of an event. It’s easy to see how this can go sideways fast.)
Also important: Keep to the facts. That means no generalizations (you were on your phone the whole time!) because they contain a judgment and are rarely true. Even if you are talking about a behavior that occurs many times, focus on a single instance of it. If you don’t remember some details, like the time on the phone, either leave them out or make sure you are presenting them from your own perspective. For example: “[…] ended up talking to her for what I felt was about 20 minutes”, “[…] until the waiter brought the food”.
Step 2: Talk about your own feelings
After establishing the real-world situation, it is time to shed light on the first hidden dimension: Your own feelings. It’s debatable if the world would be a better place if we could read minds or not. Yet, the reality is that we can’t. So we shouldn’t assume that even a long-term partner always knows what’s going on in our heads. Instead, it is our responsibility to communicate our own feelings and emotions as clearly as possible.
This may sound easier as it is. Be careful of what I would call “surface-level emotions.” Those are emotions like Sadness or Anger. By themselves, they are valid but often hide much more complex feelings underneath. In our restaurant example it’s easy to say “I felt sad”, but it’s much more meaningful to say “At this moment, I felt lonely and abandoned.” If you are missing the right vocabulary, check out this adoption of Geoffrey Roberts’s Emotion Wheel.
Step 3: Communicate your needs
Emotions don’t materialize out of thin air. Instead, they are a response to having our inner needs either met or violated. Those needs are personal things we are often not even aware of. I encourage you to look inside of yourself to identify what is going on. In a relationship context, The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman is a great starting point to identify your own needs.
In our example, a possible variant could be: “I need a certain amount of uninterrupted quality time with you to feel close to you. This time I was very busy with work, so I was hoping we could catch up on that during our date.”
At this point, you might also realize that NVC takes time to prepare. Figuring out your true feelings in a situation and what you desired instead is best done with some distance and a cool head. Take your time, sit down with some time on your hand and write down your thoughts before you bring them to your SO. I promise it will be worth your time.
Step 4: Make a suggestion or a request (Optional)
Not every argument needs to focus on problem-solving. Sometimes it’s enough to hear each other out and talk about what happened. Thus, this point is optional. However, at this point, you are already talking about something that made your feel bad or is bothering you. So thinking about how to avoid a similar situation in the future is desirable.
Here, you don’t have to be too focused on the exact scenario you are describing. Also, think about the context in which it happens. For our couple, one solution/request would be to turn phones off when going out for dates. But it could also be making more time and space for each other during the week to avoid this draught of quality time in the first place.
For this point, keep in mind that you can make a request, but just because you’ve followed all these steps doesn’t mean you “deserve” it to be fulfilled. Listen to your partner’s side as well. There might be valid reasons why the phone has to stay on. In the end, keep in mind, Non-Violent Communication is about compassion.
Before wrapping up, I want to have a look at some other forms of violent communication. Or “life-alienating communication” as named by Rosenberg in his (excellent) book Non-Violent Communication, A Language of Life By. The general advice is to completely eradicate these patterns from your communication.
You are so lazy! You are a slut! You are selfish and irresponsible! Moralistic Judgements aim at the very core of who a person is and puts them into a box of good and, more often, bad. The immediate issue with judgments is that they come from a very personal place. Sexual moral, for example, varies from culture to culture. Some cultures consider showing hair or ankle a provocative act, while gender-shared nude saunas are a common phenomenon in others. If you put someone in a box you also ignore their side of the story. Every behavior has many different drivers. By reducing it to a single negative judgment you are guaranteed to ignite a defense reaction.
Who of you has grown up under comparisons with other cousins, siblings, or classmates? “Why are you not as smart as your cousin?” Maybe you are comparing yourself to pictures you’ve seen on Instagram. Or your partner compares you to how romantic the gf/bf of their best friends are. How does that make you feel? If the answer is “miserable” or “unfair”, you are right in line with 99% of people. (Negative) comparisons feel bad because they single out a negative aspect of one person and weights them against a single positive aspect of another. It ignores all the other factors that make you yourself, and great.
Communication is the lifeblood of a successful relationship. However, it’s not enough to say “Yes” and “I love you”. Sometimes it’s important to have arguments and actively work on our relationships. Arguments with loved ones can be scary, but we now have a framework to make sure we are actually talking with each other, not against:
- Describe the situation you want to talk about
- Talk about your feelings
- Communicate your needs
- Make a request
For now, I talked about NVC in the context of romantic relationships. However, it is also helpful when talking with friends, strangers, or even in a work/business context.
Lastly, if you are still wondering if it’s worth the effort (which it is), ask yourself one question. Do you want to have a successful relationship in the long run? If the answer is yes — None Violent Communication is your tool to make it happen!
This post was previously published on medium.com.
You may also like these posts on The Good Men Project:
|White Fragility: Talking to White People About Racism||Escape the “Act Like a Man” Box||The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer||What We Talk About When We Talk About Men|
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