Study finds happy couples fight differently than others

Conflict in any type of relationship is inevitable: Whether you’re part of a long-term relationship or not, the same problems — children, money, intimacy, relatives, etc. — tend to crop up. 

But new research published in the August edition of Family Process found one particular factor that separates happy couples from the rest: how they fight and what they choose to fight about.

In the study, four psychology professors — Amy Rauer, Christine M. Proulx, Allen Sabey and Brenda L. Volling — observed two samples of couples who described themselves as “happy.” 57 of the couples were in their mid to late 30s and had been married an average of nine years, while the remaining 64 couples were in their early 70s and had been married around 42 years. 

8 PHOTOS8 secret signs your marriage is headed for divorceSee Gallery8 secret signs your marriage is headed for divorce

You speak but don’t communicate

Your communication doesn’t have to be meaningful day in and day out. But it’s troubling if you never talk with your spouse about anything beside, say, the weather or who needs to get more milk. “It’s a bad sign when speaking to each other seems superficial,” says Marni Feuerman, a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in Boca Raton, Florida. “If you keep the day-to-day stuff inside, it creates distance and disconnection in your marriage,” says Feureman. That can make you feel less affection and fondness for your partner. The same goes if it’s one person doing all the talking and the other doing all the listening. “Remember, good communication is not just about speaking up on behalf of yourself,” says Francesca Di Meglio, the former Newlyweds Expert for About.com and writer of the Italian Mamma blog. “It’s also about listening to—and really hearing—your spouse.” Here are ways to start communicating better in your marriage.

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You disagree about whether to have kids

You likely discussed the topic of having children before you got hitched, but feelings may change. Maybe you feel kids will get in the way of your career or your spouse wants to give up trying after fertility issues have made starting or adding to a family difficult. Di Meglio suggests putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. Figure out why he or she doesn’t want a baby and what’s motivating the argument. Persuasion isn’t the answer either. It’s unfair if you’re trying to talk someone into or out of a desire to have kids, says Lesli M. W. Doares, a marriage consultant and coach with a private practice in Cary, North Carolina, and author of Blueprint for a Lasting Marriage: How to Create Your Happily Ever After With More Intention, Less Work. “Parenting is hard enough when both people are on board,” Doares says. “Being talked into it will only create resentment.”

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You’re spending less and less time together

You don’t have to be attached at the hip 24/7. But you should want to spend your free time with one another and enjoy being with your partner more than anyone else (most of the time). It’s perfectly fine to binge-watch a television show, surf the Internet on your phone, get lost in a book, work late, or socialize without your spouse. But consider if you’re using these activities as a distraction—to the point that it feels like a relief not to be together—from dealing with any issues in your marriage. “Creating regular time to be together as a couple and doing things that are fun is critical for a lasting, successful marriage,” says Doares. Here are ways to stay connected when you have to be away from your partner.

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You’re not putting the work in to improve your marriage

Both spouses need to put forth equal effort to make the relationship work. One person can’t go it alone. “If you lack the motivation to work on your marriage, to address issues that are cracking away at your relationship, then you have to figure out why,” says Di Meglio. “Often, the lack of motivation is an indication that something has been lost. It doesn’t mean you can’t get it back, but you have to dedicate yourself to figuring out why you’re feeling disenchanted and uninterested.”

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You lack respect for one another

It starts with an innocent complaint, says Doares, like: “You didn’t do the dishes.” Then it morphs to more general criticism: “You never help around the house.” Then it evolves into a personality judgment: “You’re a selfish, lazy slob.” “This doesn’t happen overnight, but it gradually chips away at the foundation of your marriage,” says Doares. If you put one another down or constantly criticize one another, you may not be a good match. “If you don’t respect the person, then you’ll have a hard time liking him or her, let alone loving him or her,” says Di Meglio. Think about whether something was said or done that made you lose respect, says Di Meglio. “Both people must be committed to earning back the respect, changing the questionable behavior and communicating better,” says Di Meglio. “If that’s not possible or too much damage has been done, the marriage won’t last.”

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Your partner is a serial cheater

Some couples can recover and move on from a marital stray, even making their marriage more united after one partner cheated. “Couples can survive an isolated affair,” says Doares. However, a serial cheater who has multiple affairs likely has a problem you can’t fix. “The only way to get over a betrayal—emotional or physical—is to earn back trust by not cheating ever again,” says Di Meglio. “If this is a pattern of behavior, then you’ll never earn back the trust.” Some people just can’t be monogamous and aren’t cut out for marriage. Doares reminds people not to blame themselves. “This isn’t about you, but about your partner’s refusal to fully participate in your marriage,” she says. Read here about ways to heal your marriage after an affair.

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You’re no longer intimate

We’re not saying you have to be all over one another like honeymooners. “The chemistry we feel for a spouse can ebb and flow for many reasons,” says Cathy W. Meyer, the About.com Divorce Support Expert and managing editor of divorcedmoms.com. “It’s not unusual in a marriage to go through periods where we feel a lack of desire for our spouse.” When someone is sick or you have young kids, it’s natural to be less intimate. Even as you age, you might not want to be as physical as you once were. “But if you’re no longer intimate and this is consistent, you have to ask yourselves why,” says Di Meglio. “This is an even bigger problem if one of you wants sex and the other doesn’t.” A lack of physical affection means you’re in a platonic relationship. “Couples cease to be lovers and become roommates and business partners,” says Doares. “But that’s not the reason most of us get married.”

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You argue about the same things over and over

It’s common for people to argue about the same issue throughout their marriage, says Feuerman. (Here are simple ways to stop marital fights in their tracks). “This might lead to divorce if you let the arguments seriously escalate, fight dirty, shut down and refuse to talk, or excessively blame,” says Feuerman. You may need to compromise and do some give and take to put an end to the constant battles and differences. “It’s been my experience that couples get caught in a cycle of the same-old drama because they’ve lost interest in each other and the health of their relationship,” says Meyer.

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The researchers asked the couples rank their issues, from most serious to least. Issues relating to household, health, communication and money were consistently labeled as some of the more serious problems, while jealousy, religion and family were on the other side of the spectrum.

The researchers then had the couples discuss their pressing problems and observed how they spoke about it to one another. 

What they discovered was that couples who focused on issues that had clear solutions (e.g., problems with household workload is solved with the proposal to redistribute the domestic labor) seemed to understand that if they both worked together toward an answer, they both would walk away from the conversation feeling secure and content.

This is not to say that more complicated topics are entirely off-limits. It was the couple’s intentional selection of what to argue about that made the foundation of their marriage stronger, which paves the way for future discussions about more difficult problems. 

Diving into a complicated problem with no solution prepared can only lead to the deterioration of the relationship.

Professor Rauer sums it up perfectly: “Being able to successfully differentiate between issues that need to be resolved versus those that can be laid aside for now may be one of the keys to a long-lasting, happy relationship.”

5 PHOTOSTips from Tinder’s Dating and Relationships Trend ExpertSee GalleryTips from Tinder’s Dating and Relationships Trend Expert

Ask yourself why you’re on the app

Are you looking for marriage, a casual relationship or just a fun dating experience? Once you’ve determined your reason for being there and what you’re looking to get out of the app, you can begin swiping. 

If you have hard dealbreakers, like you don’t plan on having children or you are only looking for something serious, Dr. Sterling suggested leading with that in your bio.

“I know people hesitate to lead with that information because, and the feedback I’ve gotten from my clients in my private practice is that, they don’t want to sound arrogant or like they’re flattering themselves,” she said. “But there’s nothing arrogant or flattering about that. If you indicate in your Tinder bio that you’re not looking for marriage or you are, or you don’t want children or you must have children, then none of your Tinder matches can take that personally. They’re not going to interpret that information as, ‘Oh, this person is really into me and thinking too long term.’ Because it’s just out there for everybody. So I don’t think you can be forthright with that enough.”

Be smart about how you text

Although there’s technically nothing wrong with starting a conversation with “Hey, how’s it going?”, it doesn’t exactly stand out. On the other hand, cheesy pickup lines often go ignored or worse, get turned into Instagram memes.

Dr. Sterling suggested sticking to your personal style and opening with what feels most authentic to you, like a GIF. “I think a GIF can communicate so much more than just text. I think that they can be done really adorably and they can make you look more vulnerable and open and more emotive than words can,” she said.

Text is obviously the next step to starting a conversation and getting to know your match, but too much text is a no-no.

“Don’t overwhelm your Tinder match with too much communication. Definitely allow space so that they can respond back. People can get really overwhelmed very quickly in a text tsunami situation, so definitely control the urge to text too much,” Dr. Sterling said.

However, every conversation has a tipping point — if you exhaust the conversation, it can often feel like there’s no point in meeting up. So, once you’re pretty sure you’re into your match, it’s time to initiate a date. 

Meet up in person

Deciding where to go can also be a pretty intimidating. (Are drinks too casual, but is dinner too serious?) Dr. Sterling suggests straying from the norm and trying a new activity together.

“I would encourage people to engage in activities that they wouldn’t normally engage in that challenge them, because I’m all about personal development and growth,” she said. “You learn a lot about values that way. You know, if the person hasn’t been as forthright as you wish they were in their bio or in their communications about what they’re looking for, you’re going to learn a lot about a person based on their willingness to lean into an activity like that.”

Some examples include taking your date to a cooking class, rock climbing, a salsa club or exploring a new area of the city.

Embrace your first date jitters

If you get nervous before a first date, embrace it (as in, don’t turn to alcohol).

“I think that we need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and actually use those nerves,” Dr. Sterling said. “I  hate hearing people say, ‘Oh, don’t be nervous!’ Well, unfortunately we can’t dictate the emotions that we feel, but what we can do is acknowledge that we feel that way and honestly, there’s something really sweet and vulnerable about disclosing [your nerves] to your date.”

So, let your date know you’re a little nervous. If they don’t appreciate your honesty and authenticity, and that’s something that you yourself value (again, know what you’re looking for!), then consider that maybe they’re not the best match for you. Everything you experience on a first date can provide you with insight as to whether or not you and your date are going to be long-term compatible matches.

Ask the right questions and really listen

One way to find out if you and your date could be a long-term match is looking at your common values and principles, not just common interests. 

“In a long-term relationship, both people are going to change over time, "Dr. Sterling said. "But if your values and principles are aligned, if they’re similar, then those changes are going to manifest in ways that remain compatible.”

Although it can be pretty tricky or even intimidating to ask someone about their values on a first date, creative questions can help you get to the root of a person and even help you stand out.

Dr. Sterling gave an example: Say you’re looking for a long-term relationship and you value personal integrity and happiness, and look for depth in a person. Ask them something like, “Would you rather be at a job for 10 years, making half a million dollars a year, but unhappy and unable to quit, or make $25,000 a year and feel completely fulfilled professionally?”

The answer to a question like that is going to provide you with information on whether or not you and your date have similar values and what that person prioritizes in their life.

When asking your questions, however, make sure you’re really listening. Dr. Sterling agreed that sometimes we really want something to work out, so we ignore major signs or red flags.

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