How to Have a Healthy Argument and Save Your Relationship

unhappy couple
For many of us next to our job, the partnership is the second important mainstay of life. It determines whether we tend to be happy and satisfied rather than unhappy and frustrated. As a couple one can spend a weekend just like the one just past together in many different ways which then reflects this morning’s start into the new work week. How did it go with you? Harmonious, well-balanced, energizing, inspirational, relaxing, active? Or is it with you like with so many others: One is really looking forward to a free weekend together but somehow one still always ends up in some stupid argument about something trivial that spoils part of the relaxation? In that case you are not the exception: In more than a quarter of all relationships arguments during the vacation or days off are a common occurrence; in four of five relationships it happens at least frequently.

Arguments in relationships are normal, a daily occurrence and a logical consequence of our – fortunately – remaining distinct individuality even after having joined someone someone else to form a unit, the “couple”. Although one can somewhat reduce the potential for arguments when preferences and antipathies, life’s objectives and perceptions more or less coincide, there are still sufficient occasions left over for providing a cause for arguments. And that does not have to threaten the relationship just as long as one observes a few rules. Today I would like to introduce you to one of them: Gottman’s “5:1 Formula”. I believe it is particularly important.
John Gottman, a psychologist at Washington University has for years been engaged with the question of that which sets happy and unhappy couples apart from each other. Why do some manage to make it all the way to the Golden Jubilee and others separate when the bride’s bouquet has barely wilted? In order to find the answer to this question he and his team continued observing arguing couples and with the aid of a complicated coding system for behavior patterns they analyzed which argument patterns affected the relationship negatively and which ones did not. Their research was not limited to that which was said in the course of an argument but also how it was said and therefore considered the partners’ inflection, voice and facial expressions. Based on hundreds of observations they developed a system enabling them to predict whether a couple would stay happily together or separate. In a long-term study they actually managed to do that: With an accuracy ratio of 83% (!) they correctly predicted whether couples they had observed during an argument half a year after their wedding were still going to be together six years later.

Many people do believe that happy couples don’t argue or at least less frequently than unhappy couples. Gottman proves that is incorrect. Sometimes sparks also fly with happy couples. According to the researchers the difference lies in the ratio of positive and negative behavior to one another: Happy couples exhibited a 5:1 positive to negative ratio; in other words, in the final essence a negative behavior (or message) was counterbalanced by five positive behaviors (or messages). While the ratio with unhappy couples was less favorable in the worst case scenario even as bad as1:1 – they always reciprocated tit for tat, so to speak: if you are nice to me, I am nice to you, if you attack me in any way, I’ll serve you with the same sauce. That creates a negative downward pull that is sure to erode and destroy the relationship in the long term.

Positive signals can be manifestations of affection, interest, pleasure or affirmative signals. This naturally also includes all non-verbal expressions as for instance when your partner during an argument affectionately puts his/her hand on your arm, smiles at you or if you nod expressing your agreement with something that has been said. While negative signals can be anger, whining, domination deportment, needling, taunting, withdrawal behavior, defensiveness or taking offense.

A pretty difficult task isn’t it? Five kindnesses in return for one needling! Expensive deal! I would think that most of us would in all probability not depart the field of battle as the best in class. Some of us might also react defiantly if told that „an eye for an eye“ shouldn‘t be the rule in partnerships. That very quickly conveys the feeling that one is supposed to somehow soft-pedal or lower one’s sights. But that is not the case, at all. On the contrary, the “trick” is not to start the argument with a rude frontal attack against the other but formulate the complaint a little more carefully. For instance, “I-messages” are always a good way because one speaks about oneself and one’s very own experience without attacking the other. “You are always so sloppy!” is obviously a touchdown pass leading to a knock-out fight: First of all the other justifiably feels attacked and assumes a defensive position and secondly this merely opens the flood gate to fruitless debates on the subject “You are wrong!” – “I am not!” It is better to describe the effect of the other’s behavior on oneself: “It really makes me uncomfortable when your clothes are strewn all over the apartment, I just need a little more order so I can relax.” First of all, this does not constitute a general attack on the partner because one only addresses a specific behavior. Secondly, the other would have a difficult time to counter with: “You are not uncomfortable at all!” This presents a better chance that the other person takes your problem seriously and is willing to look for a solution together. When putting forth a criticism it is also important to watch out for one’s own facial expression, body language and intonation. The best I-message is useless if it is presented in the grouching descant of a three year old in front of the candy counter in the supermarket (non- and paraverbal signals can determine 60 – 90% credibility of a message!) In these situations it is also very helpful to affectionately touch the other, smile or at least turn the entire body towards him/her.
Nice in theory but realistically not practical? Sure it is. But – as almost everything we present to you here on iPersonic – not easy and not doable without lots of practice and good will. Beyond that it is not meant that one must react in every situation as scripted or according to the letter when one has just been angry with the other. A solid relationship can occasionally handle something outside the rules. It is just that the destructive patterns should not become a habit because then the future won‘t be bright, indeed. Beyond that, in most relationships the effect can be truly amazing once one takes the first step. Try it and observe how your partner reacts when you attempt to address a dispute between the two of you with the “5-1” rule as a blueprint in your head. The other will almost always react pretty quickly to the partner’s changed behavior and will be willing to accommodate him/her. In this way it can turn into an upward spiral instead of a downward spiral benefitting both partners and their entire relationship. If you have difficulties jumping over your own shadow by taking the first step, just remember: Even if you should “win” your next argument, in addition to your partner something else would have lost: your relationship.