So, you and your partner just had a fight. Now come the repair attempts.
Maybe it was a little fight over a minor issue -- someone forgot to take out the trash or left dirty dishes in the sink. Now you're both feeling irritated and upset. Or maybe it was more significant -- your mother-in-law is coming for a five-day visit and you're feeling apprehensive. The ensuing argument included shouting, harsh words and hurt feelings. Or maybe it was yet another fight on a subject you've been going round-and-round about for years, the one where you want to live in the country and your partner in the city. Afterwards, you left in tears and were feeling depressed.
Marital Conflict is Normal
The first thing is to recognize and accept that all couples fight. "Even happily married couples can have screaming matches. Loud arguments don't necessarily harm a marriage," says Dr. John Gottman, founder of The Gottman Institute and author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Arguing, in and of itself, is not the problem. The key factor is the couple's shared meaning of the argument and the enduring friendship they share, he notes. This is what allows them to keep arguments in proper perspective and more easily repair and restore their emotional connection.
After a fight, it's also important to realize what Gottman refers to as a "surprising truth" about marriage: most marital arguments cannot be resolved. He advises couples to make an important distinction between the two kinds of marital conflict: arguments that can be resolved and arguments that are perpetual. Depending upon the nature of the argument, the couple can fine-tune both their expectations and their coping strategies.
Using Repair Attempts to Navigate Marital Conflict
Once you've accepted that all couples fight and you've made a distinction between whether this is a resolvable problem or a perpetual one, you still want you and your partner to get to a better place. One way to do that is through what is called a repair attempt. Gottman defines a repair attempt as "any statement or action-silly or otherwise-that prevents negativity from escalating out of control." Before a couple can come up with a mutually satisfactory resolution, they first must defuse the tension and negativity.
Gottman has been a leading pioneer in evidence-based research into the science of effective repair attempts. Not surprisingly, couples are idiosyncratic, and while some strategies may work well for some, they do not for others. After working with and studying the reactions of thousands of couples in his Love Lab, Gottman has come up with a powerful argument-resolution tool: the Gottman Repair Checklist.
As part of his research, couples received lists of various phrases and were asked which phrases, if said by their partner, would be most effective in helping them to feel better and calm things down? After reviewing data from thousands of couples, Gottman organized the most effective responses into six categories of statements. The six categories included concepts related to "I feel," "I'm sorry," "Get to yes," "I need to calm down," "Stop action," and "I appreciate."
The Gottman Repair Checklist
By drawing on any of these repair statements, partners can begin to defuse the conflict or at least help prevent it from escalating further.
Cultivating Friendship: The Cornerstone of a Healthy Relationship
So now that you're armed and equipped with the Gottman Repair Checklist, you're ready to fix each and every fight you'll ever have, and you and your partner are ready to waltz down the road to everlasting wedded bliss, right? Wouldn't it be great if it were that easy! In reality, successful conflict resolution isn't merely about memorizing the right words to say, or practicing active listening, or making "I" statements instead of "you" statements. Gottman even goes so far as to say that "successful conflict resolution isn't what makes marriages succeed." In fact, some happily married couples "rarely do anything which resembles active listening when they're upset"!
So if successful conflict resolution isn't the key to a happy marriage, then what is? In Gottman's view, the most important predictor of a happy marriage is that a couple enjoys an enduring, deep friendship. And for many couples, this lasting friendship doesn't come effortlessly; it is something they are purposeful about. To cultivate a deep friendship with your partner, Gottman recommends that couples focus on the first three principles, also known as the friendship system, which forms the foundation of a solid marriage. The first three principles are as follows: enhance your love maps, nurture your fondness and admiration, and turn toward each other instead of away.
"Rediscovering or reinvigorating friendship doesn't prevent couples from arguing. Instead, it gives them a secret weapon that prevents quarrels from getting out of hand," he says. So, by all means, put in the effort to become an expert at making repair attempts with your partner! But also remember, the "secret" behind a successful repair attempt is a marriage that is based upon a lasting, deep friendship.