How fights and Arguments Damage Your Marriage (Part 2)
Fights and arguments can be extremely damaging to the foundations of a marriage, if we allow ourselves to continue to fall into them by default. And again, our brains are designed to tend to defend what we believe to be true and to go into this competitive, argumentative mode. So, avoiding that does take being aware we have that tendency and having some plans for interrupting it.
There’s a fellow named John Gottman who is sort of a guru to many of us marriage counselors; partly because he has spent thousands and thousands of hours literally seeing thousands of married couples. And not only seeing them as a therapist, but also analyzing what’s happening between them and what tends to show up in marriages having healthy and solid long-term relationships and what tends to show up with couples who end up separating or divorcing.
One of the things he has found is that marriage partners who are healthy and happy and seem to feel secure in their relationship, tend to have a ratio of five positive interactions with each other for each one negative interaction. Now thinking about that, it would seem like kind of a high bar to meet. But, we’re not talking about ‘spotlight moments’ here. We’re talking about small engagements. Connections. having those experiences throughout the day when we reaffirm “we’re together”, “we’re a couple”, “I’m glad that you’re with me”.
It can be subtle things. It can be walking by and giving a pat on the fanny when you’re near your spouse. Or taking a moment to engage in what they’re interested in or what they’re watching and just asking them about it.
When you think about fights… well, they fall on the negative side of the equation. But, I would argue that fights and arguments, when you get into a real win/lose dynamic – especially if it the crosses that line into saying things that you later regret (which can happen for a good reason – that we’ll cover in another video); in my thinking that probably counts as more than one on the negative side – just by itself. Because it has a lot of intensity and it stirs up a lot of disconnection and friction in the marriage.
But, there is a danger to fights not being limited to just one mark on the negative side of the scale. And there are couple of reasons for this. One reason is that we have a tendency to ‘TiVo’ our fights. In other words, we (mentally) record them. And then we go back and replay them.
And when we replay them were thinking, “I can’t believe that he said that” or “I should’ve done this” or “why doesn’t she understand – if only she would get it?” And what we basically do is re-create the negative feelings or the feeling of disconnection from our marriage partner.
Now you can go back and replay that once, or twice, or eight times or ten times. But each time it’s replayed – as far as our negative experience of disconnection in our marriage – that’s like adding one more on the negative side of the scale. So, one disagreement or one fight can become experienced as multiple negative interactions.
And another way that repeated fights and frequent fights can disrupt and harm the foundation of our marriage has to do with the way that our brains function. Now neurology is not the most exciting and interesting thing in the world for a lot of people, but what we discovered last even 5 to 10 years helps to explain a lot of what I as a marriage counselor try to help couples to make changes.
And one of the things that our brain does is it learns from experience. So, basically it is designed to anticipate what is likely to occur in a similar experience. It generalizes. Many of the married couples that I work with have a pattern… they have a dance that they do where there is actually a sequence, a step-by-step process, that they repeat leading them into their fights.
Now they’re not doing this on purpose and until we talk about it, they’re often unaware that it even exists. Because, they can be fighting about something different each time. But there’s a certain sequence that leads them to that explosive angry win/ lose posture; that has in part to do with repeating that sequence over time. So, that when something comes up that’s likely to cause a conflict, their brain is already anticipating it and without them even being aware of it, is getting ready to repeat that pattern.
Those neurological pathways that fire off together in a similar situation, they tend to get connected. And it’s one of the ways that it can become increasingly difficult for us to avoid getting into a fight with our marriage partner over something that we’re upset about; once that’s the pattern that gets established.
Understand Why tiptoeing around difficult issues to avoid fights doesn’t work… in part three.
Presenter: Geoffrey Bullock, LCSW
Geoffrey is a marriage counselor with Asheville Marriage Counseling, located in Asheville, NC. Free initial consultations are offered for those in Asheville and surrounding areas who are interested in learning more about marriage counseling.
[END OF PART TWO]