Thursday, September 16, 2010

Gottman, Conflict Styles, And Why I am Not Worried About My Marriage Revisited

While Ben and I are renewing our love for each other,  I am re-posting a few posts.  This was originally posted at Mormon Mommy Blogs and a post I really loved writing.  Enjoy!

Before I went to school, I was sure I could point out which marriages would succeed or fail. I would casually observe the marriages around me and secretly guess how long each couple would last. Not a very positive game, but I was surrounded by divorce and keen on avoiding it in my own marriage. After I married, these observations turned into an obsession. I was sure that marriages in which the couples argued a lot were doomed, but those that avoided conflict were even worse off. Surely the best marriages were ones in which arguing was rare but problems were not ignored. An even balance.

When my sister married, I watched her interactions between she and her husband closely. They seemed intent on avoiding any conflict. Rather than argue, they would shrug their shoulders and insist that time would solve their problems. They preferred to emphasize their similarities rather than discuss differences. I gave them a few years. At most.

A friend of mine, on the other hand, had the dream marriage. She and her husband would ignore the little things that bothered them and calmly discuss those issues that needed discussing. In these discussions, each partner would validate the speaker's point, showing understanding of how he or she might feel. That was how I wanted my marriage to be.

That was not how it happened. My husband and I are passionate. We argue frequently. We are not afraid to share our individual viewpoints and will often alternate between heated discussions and ridiculous laughter. We do not avoid conflict; rather, we choose to meet each difference head on. In my eyes, we were going nowhere fast.

That was until I took a marriage class a few months after our marriage. The professor introduced different conflict styles in marriage which patterned those above: avoidant, my sister's marriage; validating, my friend's marriage; and volatile, my marriage. He asked us which marriage we thought would most likely succeed. The majority of the class answered validating. To our surprise, he informed us that, actually, all three marriages were found to be equally successful.

As it turns out, John Gottman (1), a renowned marriage scholar, has extensively researched conflict styles in marriage. His findings have indicated that marriage conflict style does not predict marriage stability as much as the ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions. Whether you have a high volume of negatives and positives (volatile), a medium volume of these (validating), or a low amount (avoidant) did not matter; it was whether the positives outweighed the negative, with a ratio of 5 (positives) to 1 (negatives) as the most successful average.

Since that class, and many others, I have stopped obsessing over whether a marriage will succeed or fail. Instead, I have noted the positives in each marriage and prayed for their success. I also realized that my marriage actually has the potential to reach Eternity. I guess our intense arguments riddled with silly banter is a good thing after all.

How about you? What is your conflict style?

1. For more information you can read John Gottman's article, "The Roles of Conflict Engagement, Escalation, and Avoidance in Marital Interaction : A Longitudinal View of Five Types of Couples," in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.


  1. I used to be avoidant, only in the sense that while I would make my displeasure visible, I'd avoid talking about it.
    Now, I try to be more validating.. I try to think before I make my argument, and try to consider my husband's point of view before I launch into a tirade. I will stress that I "try" to do this, because I don't always succeed. I blame it on the crazy Italian blood. :)
    I used to put numbers on people's marriages... but then after being surprised by a few marriages I never thought would end, I finally learned that only the two people in the marriage really know what is going on.
    Really enjoyed your post Amber. Hope you and Ben are having a wonderful time.. xoxo

  2. I remember learning about this and thinking how important it is that we make sure to make time to have positive interactions as frequently as possible. Often the hurried, rushed interactions are not the memorable good times. We have to build up a memory bank of validation, trust, romance, and playfulness to look back on and remember when more negative interactions occur. I often find when I am about to get upset about something I perceive my spouse has done to wrong me, if I remember all the good memories and the evidences of his intense love for me, I am able to push off the potential negative interaction and realize the strength of our bond.

    Marriage is a wonderful teacher. :)

  3. You and I have this marriage obsession in common. I study marriages as well. I want mine to make it through the mine field.

    I believe it is John Gottman as well that studies the predictive effective of eye rolling. It is not so much the amount of arguing, but the level of respect granted in a marriage, and eye rolling was a telling sign of that respect.

    If you roll your eyes you are dissing your partner. Roll your eyes enough and you can expect to roll right out of a relationship.

  4. My husband and I try and communicate with each other. We don't argue about little things and when we argue about big things we try to take a rational approach. I tend to get animated and emotional, while my husband tries to calm me down. Of course, that makes me more mad. I think it is trying to figure out what works best for the two people involved. But a respect for one another is essential in arguing and loving effectively.

    Hope you and Ben are having some much needed rest and renewal.

  5. Interesting. Thanks for sharing!

  6. I've wondered about this subject as well on multiple occasions. I've never really been into looking at married couples and guessing how long they would last, but I'd do it to people who were dating and whether or not I thought that would last.

    I think the reason why this topic occupies my mind often is because I often wonder about my own marriage. Xan and I have a more unique approach. We are not the typical married couple. We do many things differently. I know some of my close acquaintances disapprove of some of our 'marriage techniques,' so to speak. Often times this makes me worry that we are doing something wrong even though it really works for us right now. Divorce is scary because there are no guarantees. Only faith in each other and ourselves.

    But then, I get a chance to spend more time with Xan's parents. He is so much like his father. I start seeing our 'marriage techniques' being practiced by them and start realizing that we use these techniques because that IS what works for us. Just as some of the same techniques we use are the same that have KEPT his parents together through their marriage.

    The bottom line that I have come to is that every couple is different. Every marriage requires its own set of rules and tools. As long as these rules and tools are in line with God's word and each partner in the marriage is continually communicating with the other about concerns, needs, or wants... the rest is up to faith, love and hope. Being different is always okay if it brings true happiness.


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