Dr John Gottman found in his 40 years of research of couples that roughly 70% of the arguments that were had were actually unresolvable. Does this mean that we want couples to avoid conflict or that conflict is in some way bad? No. The truth is, is that conflict is normal and healthy in your relationship. In fact, one of the quotes that has stuck with me the most from one of my graduate school professors was, “you can only love someone as much as you’re also able to hate them” because conflict, when used alongside healthy communication and resolution practices, can help fuel intimacy between partners. (Intimacy defined as a closeness between people or the process of knowing someone to a deeper extent). The truth behind this statistic is that these arguments are unresolvable and often become what Gottman refers to as “perpetual problems” due to personality differences between the couples. Each partner has learned a set of patterns, tools, and defense mechanisms throughout their life, that, just like a thumbprint, do not have a match for anyone else’s, thus the couples tend to perpetually disagree or find a compromise in which one partner has given more than the other to reach a resolution.
Dr Gottman discusses the idea of “meta-emotion” which is how people feel about emotions, emotional expression, and emotional understanding. Their viewpoint of these factors also dictates how they interact with others when faced with an emotional situation. When you think of the word “meta” I find it helps to visualize some of the Dallas highway systems, there is a ground level, but then highways that separate off and often cross over at a higher level. When we discuss a “meta” level of something we are often referring to a higher order (or a higher highway). Often times, in our relationships, what we tend to do is argue at the ground level. The argument between the couple during the kids’ bath time and bedtime, is never actually about the bath itself. It if often because a spouse feels exhausted and wants to be seen and offered help without having to ask for it, while the counterpart may feel like they have come home from a long day at work and want to walk into a home where they feel more appreciated for what they’ve contributed. The argument is not about the bath or about the bath time. It is about the narrative, emotion, and worth reflected back to each individual. We have a tendency in arguments to stay at the ground level because it takes a level of vulnerability to say the real meaning, the higher level of what is really happening. Or one partner may try to take it to the higher level, while the other’s filter may be stuck on the ground level and thus it leaves the partners communicating on two different highways of emotion and connection. This also misses the opportunity for intimacy building.
So what can be done in these moments to change this dynamic?
Did you know that when we argue with our partner and go on the defensive, we tend to posture our body to match? Some of us make ourselves bigger and louder. Some of us close into ourselves and withdraw, we pull back from the person we are having conversations with. In counseling, we often talk with people about changing their posture, leaning in. We listen better this way. We see things differently when we alter our position to it. Instead of walking into the house from work, preparing for an emotional battle about bath time, we lean in, we notice the exhaustion of our partner. Or visa versa (to keep things fair), we notice the stress of a partner walking in the door, the way they seem like they have been holding their breath all day trying to get through it. When we lean in, we see them at a meta level of understanding for who they are and how they are existing in this moment. This pause is crucial for marriages. This moment to see and be seen allows us to understand our own filters of life and self. It also gives us the opportunity to check in with how our partner interprets those same things through their own filter. Does someone still have to manage bath time? Yes. But first we have to pause, we have to see and build our intimacy with our partner as well as practice our own self awareness. It is from that place of self awareness where we are better able to respond vs react to our partner.
We realize that there is so much more to every relationship and every individual. This blog post is meant as a starting point for conversation and connection between partners and is not meant as a claim for a sole solution. Many of our counselors here at Willow Mark Therapy PLLC, have years of experience in marriage counseling and are happy to help partners build healthier communication and coping mechanisms. If you find your relationship could use some help, please reach out to us at 817-579-6775 so that we can assist you in finding the support you need.