In Monday’s post on The Gottman Relationship Blog, Zach Brittle began his Relationship Alphabet column with the letter “A.”
A is for arguments. Zach is also for arguments. That is, he believes that arguing is an essential part of any healthy relationship. According to Dr. Gottman’s research and the laws of the universe, it is critical for partners to learn to overcome disagreements, because disagreements are inevitable, and because the way that a couple works through them determines the outcome of their relationship.
Today, we’d like to talk about arguing in the context of self care, which we began to discuss last Friday.
To build and maintain a healthy relationship, partners must learn to assert themselves, identifying and expressing their emotions, including feelings of anger. However, Dr. Gottman has found that 69% of the time, the outcome of all of this emotional expression and identification will get us nowhere.
Or rather, that it will get us to the exact same place we’ve always ended up, because, as we all know, in any relationship there are topics on which mutually satisfying resolution is basically impossible. (Some of these perpetual problems calcify into “gridlock,” an unpleasant and important phenomenon you can read more about here.)
Zach reminds us that we always have agency, that it is within our power to make choices in our arguments, to infuse them with positive intention and perspective, and, whenever possible, to express kindness and humor.
Of course, when it’s the zillionth time you’ve fought about an issue, when you’re really caught up and have just about had enough, it’s a little tricky to feel sufficiently in control to make healthy choices. It’s very hard not to feel, as Zach says, “subject to the whim of the moment.” It’s very easy to feel helpless.
Luckily, helpless is a thing you are not.
You are not helpless because you are not your emotions. As human beings, we have the ability to alter our experiences of conflict by engaging critically and empathetically with ourselves – with our feelings and thoughts. We exercise this ability through mindful self-awareness. We exercise this ability, for example, when we notice that we are flooded and respond by practicing physiological self-soothing.
On any given week, the power of mindfulness asserts itself from the headlines of dozens of studies and journal articles. We hear a lot about Eastern practices (meditation, yoga, and many others) teaching self-awareness. Those who practice these arts are equipped with the skills to recognize and understand the messages their bodies are sending them: “I am overwhelmed,” “I am exhausted,” or, “I need a break.”
Listening to these messages allows us to determine, among other things, when an argument has potential to be constructive and when it is no longer worth having.
Not listening to these messages predicts negative outcomes.
When we are out of touch with ourselves, we may expect very soon to be out of touch with others. If we don’t check in with ourselves, we risk growing so distant from our partners that we forget how to connect – and even how to argue!
By engaging in proactive self care, we can create the conditions necessary for deep, mutually fulfilling connections with ourselves, our partners, families, and friends.
This Friday, look forward to a related weekend homework assignment – an exercise created by Dr. Gottman that should leave you feeling more rejuvenated, in touch with yourself, and better equipped to handle any minor stressors that come your way!