#AskGottman: Arguments Answers


Arguments are a part of any relationship, and it is my hope that you find comfort in knowing that conflict … Continued

Arguments are a part of any relationship, and it is my hope that you find comfort in knowing that conflict … Continued

break the silence

Arguments are a part of any relationship, and it is my hope that you find comfort in knowing that conflict is normal and can actually be a way for couples to grow closer. Please be aware that the responses below are intended to be psycho-educational in nature. If you are interested in therapy, please consult the Gottman Referral Network.

My boyfriend says he doesn’t like that I always justify my actions. It’s the same argument we always have. I don’t feel that I do – I feel that what he sees as justifying is just me trying to explain my side. I don’t know when I’m doing something wrong unless he tells me or it’s obvious. What do I do?

Trying to explain your behavior may come across as justifying (defending or explaining) your actions – it depends on the timing. When your boyfriend has a complaint or an issue, and if he’s voicing that you move right into discussing why you did what you did, he may not feel heard or understood about his feelings or perspective on the issue. While it’s natural for all of us to give our point of view or reasoning for doing something, we often pick the wrong time to do it. In fact, we often talk right over top of our partner to make sure we get “our two cents” in. We often listen to reply, rather than listen to understand. Defensiveness is one The Four Horseman – interactions Dr. Gottman has identified as negative and predictive of relationship failure.

When your boyfriend is sharing his point of view, postpone giving your reasons for doing or saying what you did until he feels validated and heard by you. Remember: listening patiently and hearing things you may not like or agree with, without giving your perspective right back, does not mean you are agreeing with him. Being able to listen non-defensively is a very important and hard to master skill, but you can learn it. Instead of giving your perspective right away, be curious about his perspective.

Ask him questions about the issue and really listen to the answers. Again, this is without you chiming in about how you see things.  Next, ask him what he needs from you regarding this issue.  By doing this (being curious, postponing your agenda, and asking for direction), you will give him room to feel heard and shift his experience of you of being a “justifier.”

How can I control my inward temper when my husband is rude and sarcastic towards our kids, but he doesn’t see it? He just justifies his manner with whatever they are doing. 

When you say “inward temper,” I am assuming you mean anger? That would make sense given that your husband is being rude and sarcastic with your children. Do not stifle this “inward temper.” It’s giving you very useful information – it’s telling you that something isn’t right. Use it to generate a very necessary conversation (calmly) with your husband about your unwillingness to tolerate him using sarcasm and rudeness with your children. Sarcasm, by its very nature, is an insincere form of communicating. Children under the age of 9 or 10 do not even understand sarcasm. Older children learn to model this from their parents and over time use this way of communicating to show their disrespect. And why wouldn’t they – if this is what is modeled for them?

My suggestion for change starts with a conversation. Set aside some time for the two of you to sit down and discuss. Do this at a time when the two of you are not in an argument and can sit down and have some undistracted, focused time to talk. I would encourage you to ask him about his feelings about sarcasm and if that was a way that his family communicated. That might bring some insight on his tendency to use it. Next, you need to communicate your feelings and expectations about interactions with the kids. Your part of the conversation might go something like this:

“It makes me angry when I hear you use sarcasm with the children. Research has shown that children do not learn to communicate to the best of their ability when they hear sarcasm from their parents. Plus, the likelihood of them being disrespectful to us greatly increases if they see us model this type of communication. I need you to speak in a different manner to our children that more clearly shows them what we expect of them.”

How do you argue with someone who has anger that doesn’t come from you or your relationship?  I have an amazing partner who tends to blow up and run,  but I am certain these patterns are from previous relationships because his reactions to what we are arguing about are too big for the situation.

First, I want to acknowledge that we all have wounds that stay with us from previous relationships.  We have all been hurt (albeit in different ways) that make us sensitive to certain situations in our current relationship. When these old wounds get triggered people can go into fight or flight mode, or as you have termed it, blow up or run. Note: physical abuse and threatening are never acceptable.

The best way that you can diffuse the situation in the moment is to remind yourself that you have the opportunity to be there for your partner and to make your partner feel safe. You can make your partner feel safe by showing them that you are not their previous partner.  Maintain a sense of stability, calmness, and interest in their well-being. Do not say something like, “You are overreacting.” Instead, say something like, “You seem really upset right now and I want to know more about that. Tell me what you are experiencing.” If your partner runs, do not take it personally. That is their way of getting away from the intensity of the moment. In fact, Dr. Gottman’s research has shown that couples need to take a break from a heated discussion if they are flooded. When one partner experiences what we call “DPA” or Diffuse physiological arousal (fight or flight response), we recommended breaking from the conversation for at least 20 minutes to practice self-soothing. You can read more about DPA here and more in-depth explanation of self-soothing here.

Since you say it is your partner likely experiencing DPA – you can introduce this concept to him at a calm time in your relationship as a way of planning for the next time things get too intense.

In the meantime, your ability to hear, tolerate, and take in what your partner says to you will likely diminish the intensity. It’s amazing how quickly the intensity of emotion decreases when people are allowed to voice it and it be received.

I am perpetually in the doghouse with my spouse. Either I have not cleaned the house well enough or the dinner that I cooked was not as tasty as he would have like. It sends him into a tailspin and he refuses to talk to me for several days. I have tried to talk and apologize, but nothing works so I just let him be.  In the meantime, I am so miserable.  I realize this is a crazy pattern and I want to alter it. What can I do? 

Wow. It sounds like you are not being appreciated for your contributions. Not only that, your spouse is turning your efforts into failures and then retreats from you for days by refusing to speak with you. No wonder you feel miserable. Perhaps he is angry about something else? You need to ask him.

His frequent complaining about what didn’t get done or what he didn’t like about your meal tells me there is a lack of fondness and admiration in your relationship, at least on his part. Dr. Gottman has discovered that this is a crucial piece of the foundation of a great relationship. The fondness and admiration element is a basic sense that your partner is worthy of honor and respect. Even the happiest and most successful couples get annoyed with one another for small things, but they maintain a level of respect and appreciation for one another that gets expressed on a far more frequent basis than those annoyances do. A relationship cannot thrive without this piece because its absence contributes to a very destructive enemy to close relationships: contempt.

Contempt is shown by using hostile humor, sarcasm, eye-rolling, mockery, name-calling , and belittling – just to name a few. Contempt is one of The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse that Dr. Gottman has identified as destructive to relationships. It is the single biggest predictor of divorce we have! That’s pretty amazing. It makes sense though – nothing kills closeness faster than a tone of disrespect and disgust.

You alone cannot restore his level of fondness and admiration that exists in his head. That is for him to do – to start looking for the things that you are doing “right” and communicating a sense of appreciation for you.  But you can (and should) ask for a way to talk about how his behaviors are affecting you.  It might go something like this:

“I feel sad that my efforts do not seem to please you. I try hard to make things nice for you and when I hear that you don’t like what I have done or how I have done it, it makes me feel like a failure.  When I reach out to you to try to discuss this with you and you refuse to talk to me, I am at a loss for what to do.  I do not want this pattern to continue. I need you to talk to me in a respectful way about what is bothering you.”

How do you argue reasonably about finances?  Money seems to be the root of our every emotion and problem. 

Money, money, money! This is certainly a hot topic among couples. And for good reason – money is symbolic to many of our emotional needs and consequently provokes us. Michael Fulwiler answered questions from readers about money in a previous #AskGottman post here.

Are you newlyweds? If so, a likely solution to your arguments may be as simple as coming up with a budget by itemizing your expenses, looking carefully at your income and assets, schedule regular bill-paying, and planning your financial future. My experience with couples early in their relationship is that many simply have not had the necessary conversations about how bills will be paid, what accounts (joint or separate) they will come from, who will physically pay the bills, and how they will plan for the future. When these conversations are absent, resentments begin to grow and what started out as a simple problem of budgeting – grows into a perpetual issue. If your relationship is not new and you are fighting repeatedly about money, this suggests a perpetual issue.

A perpetual issue is one that keeps coming up again and again in your relationship. Perpetual issues make up the majority of conflict in close relationships. This is because each person brings to the relationship their own personality, history, thoughts, beliefs, and values.  The merging of these two belief systems, lifestyle needs, and general personality differences around a topic that provokes a lot of emotion, contribute to the intensity and continuous nature of the argument.

One reason why couples argue about money repeatedly and can grow into a perpetual issue is that couples tend to argue about it on a surface level. For example, if you and your partner fight about spending versus saving, you are merely discussing the budget. In order to provide some understanding on both of your parts, what you really need to start talking about is what money means to each of you. Money has many meanings – security, power, control, freedom, just to name a few. Each individual has certain thoughts about what money represents and those thoughts dictate how they behave.

For example, one of my clients views money as freedom – the freedom to live life as it comes and to enjoy life’s luxuries. Her husband views money as security. Money is a means to establish a secure base for the future. You can imagine that they have had many many “discussions” regarding how money is spent and/or saved in the household.

The saver does just that—saves extra money to maintain a sense of security (or that represents what money means to them)  for the future. The spender does the opposite – spends the extra money to maintain a sense of the freedom (or that money represents to them) to live life now.

Both perspectives need to be honored through compromise.

Shelly is a Certified Gottman Therapist with over 16 years of experience working with couples. She is the founder of Align Counseling and presents The Art & Science of Love with Couples Workshops NC.