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Fight Right

Sometimes when I am working with couples in conflict, I think, “Oh, they care about each other so much, it’s too bad that they can’t stay together.” And sometimes I wonder, “How did they ever get together in the first place?” I’ve been aware of this dichotomy for some time but have not really thought about what would trigger these different reactions in me. Then, around Valentine’s Day, I heard an episode of the LifeKit podcast about John and Julie Gotttman’s new book, Fight Right: How Successful Couples Turn Conflict Into Connection.

I ran out and bought the book and want to share one particular concept with you, because I think it might contain the answer. (It’s a wonderful book and I reserve the right to share other concepts with you for future emails!) The Gottmans, both clinical psychologists, have been studying couples for many years, interviewing and testing how couples get along in their “Love Lab” in Washington State. They say that they can tell whether a couple will stay together within the first 3 minutes of studying how the couple fares when in conflict. That seems like an extraordinary claim, doesn’t it?

It really comes down to how much people are communicating and are interested in connecting – even when they are in conflict. The couples who show contempt and criticism won’t stay together. (They say there is no such thing as constructive criticism!)

They have a magic formula for fighting – “conflict math” — relay 5 positive interactions for every negative interaction. In other words, if you have something difficult to say, your partner will hear it better if you are also showing concern, listening, and validating what your partner is saying.

The positive interactions must outweigh the negative ones in a ratio of 5:1 – while you are having the fight! How are you supposed to have positive interactions while you’re fighting? (Good question!). Here are some examples they provide:

  1. Smile, nod
  2. Saying “good point” or “fair enough” (acknowledging)
  3. Empathizing
  4. Apologizing
  5. Validating something your partner has said
  6. Owning responsibility for your part of the problem
  7. Using humor to connect
  8. Pointing out what you both do right

They found that couples that didn’t reach the 5:1 ratio during a fight (and the ratio grows to 20:1 outside of conflict) didn’t make it long-term! Does this sound difficult to achieve?

The good news, as they point out, is that you can change your behavior – and start imbuing your conflicts with small (but profound) positive interactions. You can learn how to fight right!

Ciao for now,

Joy S. Rosenthal, Esq.
Mediator, Collaborative Attorney


Joy Rosenthal

Joy S. Rosenthal, Esq. is a compassionate mediator, a skilled negotiator and an intelligent litigator with extensive background in the private and public sectors. Joy served as a Staff Attorney at the Legal Aid Society's Juvenile Rights Division for nearly 10 years, where she represented hundreds of children and teenagers… MORE >

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