What Every Healthy Couple Understands About Problem-Solving

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How you and your partner fight directly influences how emotionally connected and passionate your relationship is.

After four decades of research on thousands of couples, Dr. Gottman noticed that the Masters of relationships fought differently than the Disasters. The Masters focused on attuning to each other by seeking to understand before problem-solving, whereas the Disasters consistently devolved into the Four Horsemen: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

To help couples successfully navigate issues like the Masters instead of the Disasters, Dr. Gottman created a weekly meeting called “The State of the Union.”

Hold your own State of the Union

The first step is to have a pre-conflict warm-up. By focusing on the positive aspects of your partner and of your relationship at the beginning of the discussion, you remind yourselves that you are fighting for each other, not against each other.

By starting with these sweet words of affirmation, you are intentionally beginning your meeting from a place of calm. (It’s almost impossible to yell at your partner when you’re telling them all of the things you love about them.)

Next, agree on an area of tension to talk about and work together to decide who will start as the speaker and who will start as the listener. The speaker will share their perspective of the event for a few minutes without interruption as the listener takes notes on a notepad about what the speaker is saying.

Each partner will be given a time to speak and a time to listen as you work through the different stages of your disagreement. When it’s your turn to speak, you get the floor for as long as you need to fully express your feelings and perspective on whatever issue you’ve chosen to discuss.

This is not the time to persuade your partner or recommend a solution. I know it’s difficult to resist solving the problem at this point, but we know from Dr. Gottman’s research that it is counterproductive to try to problem-solve before each partner feels understood.

If you’re the speaker, follow this recipe for success: I feel [name an emotion], about [a specific event], and I need [state a positive need].

Once the speaker talks for a few minutes, have the listener reflect back what they heard confirm that they understand what the speaker has expressed. One question I have the listener ask the speaker is, “Did I get it right?”

If the listener understands the speaker, then begin to empathize by saying, “It makes sense that you feel [x] about [y] and that you need [z]. I would feel that way, too.”

After this, have the speaker and listener swap roles. When you both put the ATTUNE skills into practice, it’s not going to sound like a “normal” conversation. It may even feel uncomfortable at first, but if how you’ve been dealing with conflict hasn’t been working, then maybe it’s time to discover a new “normal” for engaging in conflict with each other. TC mark

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